Kirkuk: Iraqi Kurdistan’s Next Territory?

3 MINS READApr 4, 2017 | 21:49 GMT

The Provincial Council of Kirkuk voted April 4 in favor of pursuing an independence referendum to ultimately join Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government. But while Kurdish council members supported the measure, Arab and Turkmen members did not, many boycotting the vote altogether. The vote follows Kirkuk Gov. Najmadeen Kareem's decision to issue decrees in mid-March ruling that the Kurdish flag be raised in Kirkuk province and that the Kurdish language should be used alongside Arabic as official dialects. The next step for provincial leaders will be to work with the Iraqi government in Baghdad and convince it to use the country's electoral commission to conduct the referendum. But it is very unlikely that Baghdad would ever grant the commission permission to conduct the referendum. Existing barriers will prevent any such referendum from happening easily, if at all.

Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution stipulates that the central government must carry out the referendum if any province legally demands it. But Article 140 also stipulates that a census and demographic normalization must be carried out prior to any referendum, both of which are complicated tasks in disputed Iraqi territories. Baghdad could reasonably argue that because many Turkmen and Arabs in Kirkuk province do not agree with the decision to pursue a referendum, it will not administer one. A similar process broke down in 2008 and the legal status of Kirkuk has remained in limbo since. Many in Iraq even argue that Article 140 is expired.

There are also the internally displaced persons in Kirkuk province to consider. Thousands of civilians have become removed from their homes because of the ongoing fight against the Islamic State, and many thousands more have relocated to IDP camps in Kirkuk province. Provincial officials argue that housing and otherwise caring for these people has added to their financial burden. Though the PUK-affiliated Kareem is often an independent actor and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) controls a lot of Kirkuk's oil infrastructure, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party controls much of the province politically. The prospect of a referendum, therefore, could be an effort by the PUK to convince Baghdad to answer its demands for assistance.

All the while, other Middle Eastern countries are watching the events unfolding in Kirkuk. Turkey and Iran don't want to see the future of the oil-rich province made more uncertain, especially since it would ultimately lead to a more powerful semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has already said, after meeting with the head of the Iraqi Turkmen Front in Ankara on April 3, that changing Kirkuk's status is not a move Turkey can accept. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said April 4 that, "Kirkuk is not a Kurdish city alone but a Kurdish, Turkmen, and Arab city." And Iran's Foreign Ministry has said that hoisting the Kurdish flag will increase tensions in the province. So, both countries will influence anyone in the provincial, and central government they can to keep the referendum from happening.

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