THE vast oil reserves and disputed status of Kirkuk have given it a reputation as a powder-keg. The multi-ethnic province in northern Iraq lies beyond the Kurdish Autonomous Region but is ruled by the Kurds and claimed by the Arabs in Baghdad. To locals, the ambiguity has had its advantages. Kurdish Peshmerga fighters provided security; Iraq’s government footed the bill (which it refused to the undisputed Kurdish enclave further north). For years Kirkuk’s heterogeneous population has largely left Iraq’s identity wars at the city gates and continued their polyglot ways. Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs happily jumbled their different languages in the cafes. Flush with funds and oil wealth, malls and fancy restaurants sprouted along its roads. The province has a Kurdish governor. Peshmerga fighters, who swept in with the Americans in 2003, have the upper hand, but most of the province’s officials are still Arabs.
The tinderbox never really caught fire. But a unilateral referendum the Kurds have called for their independence on September 25th might change that. Rival Kurdish and Arab forces are converging on the province, and its often nonchalant people say they are scared. Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, sounds unrelenting in his determination to hold the referendum, not just in the three provinces of his Kurdish Regional Government but in Kirkuk and vast swathes of other provinces his forces have seized from the jihadists of Islamic State. Iraq’s prime minister, Haider Abadi, has denounced the ballot as unconstitutional and prevailed on parliament to sack Kirkuk’s governor, Najmaldin Karim, for backing the vote. The province’s status, he says, should be determined by dialogue, not an unauthorised Kurdish ballot. Hundreds of Kurds in senior government posts, including two ministers and several ambassadors, risk losing their job. Parliament is considering a vote of no confidence in Iraq’s president, a Kurd. And Iraq’s army and its allied Shia hashad, or militia, are mobilising. A leader of Badr, the largest and best armed of the militias, vows to prevent any poll and says his forces will march on Kirkuk next week, en route to Hawija, IS’s last holding in central Iraq. The operation, he says, is set to begin on September 23rd, two days before the scheduled referendum. Foreign aid workers in the city are planning to leave town.
Still at his desk, Kirkuk’s Kurdish governor is defiant. “The same Peshmerga who stopped IS entering the city, will stop the hashad,” insists Mr Karim. He echoes Mr Barzani, who says Kirkuk is Kurdish, and that “the people of Kurdistan are willing to die to defend it.” The two-metre deep trench and four-metre high earth wall which Kurds built with western assistance to block IS from taking the oilfields will serve to keep Shia militiamen at bay, they say, and mark the borders of Kurdistan’s future state. Some Kurds threaten to cut Iraq’s water supply from the dams they control on the Tigris if the fighting begins.
But the opposing force is formidable. After three years as the vanguard fighting IS, Shia paramilitary forces are battle-hardened, well-armed and flush with at least $1bn of Iraqi government finance. By contrast, the Kurdish government lacks the cash to pay its Peshmerga full salaries.
Kirkuk is just one of several flashpoints stretching west to Sinjar, and up the Euphrates into Syria, where Arab and Kurdish forces compete to fill the vacuum left by IS. The eruption of one could ignite them all. Regional powerbrokers are pressuring the Kurds. Hakan Fidan, the Turkish intelligence chief, and Qassem Suleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds force, Iran’s foreign legion, have been touring Kurdistan warning against a vote. Iran briefly dammed a river into Kurdistan over the summer, “for technical reasons”, says the Iranian consul in Kurdistan. But Kurds have been told that their three border crossings with Iran could shut, too, if the referendum goes ahead.
Mr Barzani had hoped his Western allies, who first backed the creation of a Kurdish enclave in 1991, would come to the rescue of land-locked Kurdistan. But the Americans are clear they are giving priority to Iraq’s future over that of the Kurds. They fear the referendum will jeopardise the Kurdish-Arab alliance they have stitched together against IS’s “caliphate”, potentially offering the jihadists a lease of life just as it seemed on the point of collapse. Also visiting Kurdistan, Brett McGurk, the American envoy to the coalition, warned Kurdish politicians not to expect financial, diplomatic or military support if fighting erupted. At a meeting with Mr Barzani on September 14th, a phalanx of Western ambassadors to Iraq nodded at his side.
Kurds themselves are deeply divided. Mr Barzani has staged sizeable flag-waving rallies on his home turf of Erbil and Dohuk, the two provinces ruled by his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). But elsewhere many fear Mr Barzani is gambling with their enclave. The streets of Kirkuk and Suleimaniyah provinces ruled by Mr Barzani’s old rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), are pointedly bereft of campaign posters and bunting. Walking through Sulaimaniyah’s city market, this correspondent could not find a single Kurd planning to vote. After 26 years of self-rule, many doubt their rulers’ ability to run a state. Its military forces are divided between several factions, parliament has been padlocked for two years after it sought to wrest powers from the president, whose 12-year tenure should have expired four years ago.
The enclave is over $20bn in debt. Despite seizing Kirkuk’s oilfields and exporting at least 300,000 barrels they produce per day via Turkey, Mr Barzani’s government slashed salaries and is many months in arrears. Civil servants at the Shaab café in Sulaimaniyah complained Mr Barzani had called the referendum as a smokescreen to hide his government’s internal woes. Remarkably, in a region still traumatised by Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons, a peddler proudly sold old Iraqi banknotes with the dictator’s face. The rule of Saddam’s family, he said, was better than Mr Barzani’s. Even a student hawking Kurdish flags to fund his studies said the Middle East was better without another failed state.
Mr Barzani might blink. He recalled parliament on September 15th after a two-year hiatus. It may yet vote to postpone the referendum, allowing Mr Barzani to blame MPs for the U-turn. But many Kurdish politicians are dismayed by his brinkmanship. Of all the Middle East’s 30m Kurds, Iraq’s 6m enjoy the most rights. Now many fear that the autonomy they have preserved for 26 years is at stake.
Some point to a precedent. In 1946, Masoud Barzani’s father, Mustafa, led Kurdish forces in declaring a Kurdish republic in the Iranian town of Mahabad. After losing international support, it collapsed in less than a year.
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