Kirkuk, with its mixed population of Kurds, Arabs and Turkomans, has long had the potential to be a sectarian powder keg. Under Saddam's Baathist regime, the Iraqi government forced out a large number of the city's majority Kurdish population, and resettled the city with Arabs from the south. Now ethnic tensions have flared as Kurds are demanding the return of Kirkuk to their control. The day I visited last month, a series of two car bombs and three roadside bombs killed 18 people. On April 1, at least 15 people died in a suicide truck bombing.Then there is the issue of secession:
The central question, of course, is how long the Kurds intend to remain a part of Iraq—and what will happen if they make moves toward secession. The overwhelming majority of Kurds would like to break free of Iraq and form an independent nation.The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has persisted for decades, and Turkey fears the creation of a Kurdish state on its borders that would agitate or serve as a base of operations for Turkish Kurds. Turkey takes the threat of an indepedent Kurdistan quite seriously, but their options are limited:
U.S. officials and Kurdish leaders know that unilateral moves by Kurds—to take Kirkuk on their own or to drop out of the Iraqi government—could not only provoke the ire of Iraq's Arab majority but also impel intervention by neighbors of Iraq such as Turkey, Iran and Syria that have restive Kurdish minorities of their own. Falah Mustafa Bakir, head of the Kurdish government's office of foreign relations, told me that declaring independence would be "political suicide." Just four years since the fall of Saddam, most Kurds may be willing to remain a part of Iraq for now, but few want their destinies to remain tied to a poor, failing state beset by sectarian carnage. Over time, the push for a free and independent Kurdistan may become irresistible.
Turkey has repeatedly threatened to invade Iraqi Kurdistan and seize Kirkuk to prevent an economically viable Kurdish state just south of Turkey’s own restive Kurdish region. The threat is plausible—Turkish special forces have had a uniformed presence at a U.S. air base in Kirkuk, and more than 200,000 Turkish troops are deployed on the Kurdish border—but a Turkish invasion would also virtually guarantee insurrection and guerrilla warfare by Kurds in Turkey itself. In addition, Turkey would lose a valuable trade partner; Turkish firms have invested heavily in northern Iraq.The Kurds have their own delicate balancing act to consider:
The Turkish threat is one reason many analysts doubt the Kurds will follow a legal territorial expansion with immediate secession. Still, timing is everything. If the Kurds wait too long to seek independence, their U.S. guarantors will have left, and Kurdistan will be completely at Turkey’s mercy. And even if the Kurds do not intend a decisive break now, the violence and animosity that may surround the upcoming referendum could change that sentiment. Kurdish politicians note, much to their satisfaction, that the gears of liberation can be powered by politics or by force, as the situation warrants—and moreover, that since 1991 they have never turned in reverse.And this balancing act must be conducted in the context of a majority of Kurds impatient for independence.
Kurdistan is not doomed to the violence that the rest of Iraq has witnessed. But it's fate is far from clear.