David Ignatius/Kirkuk is just one question mark for the Kurds

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Kirkuk is just one question mark for the Kurds
David Ignatius/The Daily Star
Feb. 18, 2015

From the roof of his office, Gov. Najmaldin Karim can see multiethnic Kirkuk laid out below. He points toward the Sunni suburb of Huwija about 24 kilometers west, which is controlled by ISIS. Two weeks ago, the extremists staged a ferocious assault there that almost broke through the defense lines. “ISIS has its eyes on Kirkuk. It is the big prize for them,” Karim says. This very morning, a gray day when poor visibility favored the attackers, ISIS launched an artillery and mortar strike in a Sunni suburb called Daquq, south of the city. Coalition airstrikes have pounded ISIS targets in Kirkuk twice this week.Kirkuk sits uneasily on the fault line between Kurdistan to the east, the Shiite-led Baghdad government to the south, and Sunni regions to the west. Karim is a Kurd himself, and a member of one of its big political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. But “as governor, I’m governor of everybody,” he insists.Kirkuk illustrates the dilemmas facing the Kurdish regional government in Irbil, about an hour’s drive north.

The Kurds regard Kirkuk as part of their ancestral homeland, and the Iraqi constitution calls for a referendum in which the city’s Kurdish majority could vote to leave the orbit of Baghdad and become part of Kurdistan.But can the Kurds swallow Kirkuk without choking on the other groups that live here? Karim reckons that Kurds make up a little over 50 percent of the Kirkuk population, while Sunnis account for 32 percent to 35 percent and Turkmen 13 percent to 14 percent. It’s a microcosm of the larger Iraqi ethnic puzzle.For now, the common enemy of ISIS seems to be bringing Iraqis together in the city. The Kurdish peshmerga rings Kirkuk and provides the most important security force. But inside the city, security is managed by a local police force that Karim says is roughly 39 percent Arab, 36 percent Kurd and 26 percent Turkmen. “If they say it’s only the Kurds who are keeping order in the city, that’s not true,” Karim argues. Karim says he favors a special status for Kirkuk within Kurdistan, like what Quebec has in Canada. But Falah Mustafa Bakir, Kurdistan’s minister for foreign affairs, rejects this formula. “We have waited too long,” he says in an interview in his office in Irbil.

“We don’t want to continue with transition and delay.
”Kirkuk is just one of the question marks for a Kurdistan that, in many ways, has been the great Iraqi success story. The region has security, jobs and most of all, the dynamism of a homogenous population where nearly everyone shares the same dream of eventual Kurdish independence.But Kurdistan also has some mundane problems, starting with corruption. The territory is run by traditional political parties dominated by the Barzani and Talabani clans, who have historically controlled the Kurdish Democratic Party and the PUK, respectively. Having the right connections, and greasing them with some cash, has become a way of life here.It’s “absolutely right” that Kurdistan has been weakened by corruption, concedes Masrour Barzani, the chief of the regional security council who oversees all intelligence activities. “We don’t claim perfection,” Bakir agrees, but he argues that corruption in Kurdistan is far less than the circus of thievery in Baghdad.

The ruling KDP government gave a smaller reform party known as “Change” control of the Finance Ministry and oversight of the peshmerga. But when asked if these reforms have removed payoffs and nepotism, a prominent local businessman just rolls his eyes.Even the Kurds’ beloved peshmerga had its troubles in the first days of the war against ISIS last August. “The pesh had been dormant for a long time,” Barzani explains. Some inexperienced commanders buckled, and grizzled veterans had to be mobilized. Since August, they’ve lost more than 1,000 killed in action and over 4,500 wounded.

The Kurds still want their own country someday, but for now they are still Iraqis.Kurdistan’s problems are manageable, if leaders take them seriously. The danger is that corruption and political tension could weaken the foundations of the Kurdish region, just as they have the rest of Iraq. For now, the Kurds maintain the strongest platform in the region – and they’ve done the best job in battling ISIS. But nothing lasts forever. Kurdistan must solve the problems of success as well as it did those of centuries of isolation and betrayal.

**David Ignatius is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.