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The “Other” Iraqi Conflict
by Ken Sanders
February 14, 2005

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Flying well below the radar of the mainstream media and America’s collective consciousness is a conflict brewing in Iraq. It is not the conflict that so dominates our TV screens with endless tape loops of death and destruction. It is taking place in northern Iraq, in the Kurdish autonomous zone known as Kurdistan, and revolves around the future of Iraq’s Kurdish population and control of the city of Kirkuk. As it currently stands, this "other" Iraqi conflict seems capable of shattering any possible peaceful future in Iraq by thrusting the nation into civil war, possibly dragging the neighboring Turkey, Iran, and Syria into the fray.

Kurds are an ethnic minority in Iraq and make up approximately 20% of the population. Primarily located in the northern region of Iraq, the Kurds claim the city of Kirkuk as part of Kurdistan and historically theirs. (In the 1920 Treaty of Serves at the end of World War I, Kurds were promised their own state, to include Kirkuk, with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. That promise was denied three years later.) With proven oil reserves of 10 billion barrels, or 10% of Iraq’s total, Kirkuk is Iraq’s second largest oil region. During his reign, Saddam Hussein sought to "Arabise" Kirkuk by forcibly displacing tens of thousands of Kurds and bringing in Arabs from other parts of the country. Those Kurds who were permitted to remain in Kirkuk were subjected to "nationality correction," whereby they had to change their ethnicity from Kurd to Arab.

Not surprisingly, therefore, following Saddam’s removal, large numbers of displaced Kurds returned to Kurdistan generally and Kirkuk specifically in 2003 and 2004.

On the same day as Iraq’s national elections, provincial elections took place in Iraq’s Tamim province, which includes Kirkuk. Following the elections, Arabs and Turkmen in Kirkuk accused the Kurds of "fixing" the provincial elections by allegedly flooding Kirkuk on election day with Kurds from other parts of the country. An Arab provincial candidate, Abdel Rahman Munshid al-Assi, was quoted by the AFP as saying, "We are examining all options as we will not have a real presence on the provincial council."

The Kurds, of course, deny any wrongdoing and accuse all Arabs and Turkmen of failing to "understand democracy." Disturbingly, however, as evidenced by a recent column in Kurdish Media by Dhanjit Dhalliwal, there is at least a segment of the Kurdish community calling for the removal of all Arab settlers from Kirkuk. According to Dhalliwal, the Kurds do not seek to ethnically cleanse Kirkuk since the Kurds have apparently shown great generosity in their willingness to compensate the Arab settlers for their displacement. In the next breath, and without specifying the terms of the proffered compensation, Dhalliwal reminds that the Arabs stood by and watched as Saddam expelled the Kurds and, therefore, are not mere innocent victims. In other words: turn about is fair play. Taking it a step further, Dhalliwal argues that Arabs, Persians, and Turks have low morals and that until they "own up to a history of evil and admit guilt and wrong doings, persecution and violence will continue to follow the path of the Muslim world."

Dhalliwal is not an aberration among the Kurds. As reported on February 8, 2005 by Aaron Glantz of Inter Press Service, Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish candidate for president or prime minister of Iraq, has made clear that repatriation of all Arabs who settled in Kirkuk since 1975 is a non-negotiable point for a Kurdish-Shia governing coalition. (Considering that the Kurds are expected to win between 50 and 70 seats of the 275-seat Iraqi Governing Council, it will be hard to ignore the Kurds’ demands outright. In fact, current Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s political party has reportedly struck a deal with the Kurds whereby the Kurds will support Allawi for Prime Minister and Allawi’s party will support Talabani for President. Together, this Kurdish-Shia coalition is expected to be able to neutralize the coalition of Shiite factions backed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.)

Exacerbating these manifest racial, religious, and ethnic tensions are the concerns and posturing of Turkey. Immediately following Iraq’s elections, Turkey’s foreign minister, Abdullah Gal, not-so-subtly implied that if Iraq’s Kurds tried to annex Kirkuk as part of Kurdistan, Turkey would be forced to respond, probably militarily. Indeed, the Turkish military makes no effort to conceal its plans to deploy troops into Kurdistan to "liberate" Kirkuk from the Kurds, if necessary.

The problem with a Kurdish Kirkuk, in Turkey’s view, is manifold. First, until it was taken as part of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, Kirkuk was within Turkey’s borders. As such, Turkish nationalists still lay claim to Kirkuk as part of Turkey. Second, the Turkmen in Iraq are considered ethnic brethren of Turkey. Turkey created and provides financial assistance to the Iraqi Turkomen Front, an organization which seeks to unify Turkomen by calling upon Turkey to intervene in Kirkuk and expel the Kurds. Third, Turkey has its own problem of a rebellious Kurdish minority. In fact, since 1999, Turkish Kurds have used bases in Kurdistan to launch attacks inside Turkey. In response, Turkey has taken to crossing into Iraq to engage the Turkish Kurds. Most ominously to Turkey, however, is its fear that with Kirkuk’s oil reserves in their control, Iraq’s Kurds could form a viable independent state. If Iraq’s Kurds succeed in their quest for independence, Turkey fears, secession-minded Kurds in Turkey might become inspired. (Sharing Turkey’s concerns in this regard are Iran and Syria, each with their own significant Kurdish populations.)

Turkey’s concerns about an independent Kurdish state are not unfounded. On election day in Iraq, the Kurdistan Referendum Movement set up outside official polling paces in Kurdistan and polled Kurdish voters on the issue of an independent Kurdistan. According to a KRM press release on February 8, nearly 99% of those polled voted for independence. In Kirkuk, the result was nearly 100%. The Kurdish (not Iraqi) flag flies throughout Kirkuk and all significant government offices are staffed with officers of the two major Kurdish political parties. Similarly, many of the signs in these governmental offices are written in Kurdish. The Kurdistan Regional Government controls the region and Baghdad law applies only to the extent permitted by the Kurdish Parliament. Arab units of the Iraqi military are barred from Kurdistan, as are Baghdad ministries. In short, Kurds already consider themselves separate from Iraq and think of Kirkuk as theirs.

As recently noted in the New York Times by Peter Galbraith, former U.S. ambassador to Croatia, while defying exact comparison, the current situation in northern Iraq shares similarities with the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia. The U.S. and the international community long ignored the reality of Yugoslavia fracturing into separate ethnic states. By the time action was taken, it was too late to hold the country together and prevent civil war. While the Kurdish situation in Iraq is not yet at crisis-level, Kurdish hunger for sovereignty will not be easily appeased. If the situation in Kurdistan, however, is not addressed peacefully and soon, someone, be it the Kurds or Turkey, will run out of patience and all hell could break loose.

Ken Sanders is an attorney based in Tucson, Arizona. Visit his weblog at:  He can be reached at:

Other Articles by Ken Sanders

* Cause for Alarm: Regime Change Redux
* Still Playing Cute With the Law
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