Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Which Came First, Kirkuk or the Egg?

The always insightful tandem of Michael Hanna* and Joost Hiltermann have an op-ed out on the thorny issues surrounding the status of Kirkuk. The authors rightly contend that Kirkuk has the potential to either erupt, thus destabilizing security gains by opening up a new front, or provide an impetus for the adoption of a grand bargain of sorts that could help to consolidate those same security gains and establish a workable framework for the stable reconstruction of Iraqi society.

The bad news for those looking to fix the crisis in Kirkuk is that the obstacles needed to overcome are at the center of the many conflicts fueling the instability in Iraq (the federalism issue, oil wealth distribution, ethnic/sectarian communalism, reckoning with the Baathist legacy). To state the obvious, these conflicts have proven intractable, the implications are enormous for the future of Iraq and, thus, Iraqis have been fighting for the various factions' respective desired outcomes. Due to this dynamic, the status of Kirkuk has remained in limbo - held hostage by the failure to resolve the entrenched and larger underlying conflicts.

The good news is that resolving Kirkuk is taking on a sense of urgency. But, again, any effort to establish a workable solution to the Kirkuk conundrum requires a more comprehensive approach to the underlying issues. Thus, the need to fix Kirkuk could force Iraq's leaders to establish a grand bargain to address the macro issues that are represented in Kirkuk's microcosm. Hanna and Hiltermann:

The struggle for oil-rich Kirkuk threatens to paralyze Iraq's legislative agenda and block political accommodation, destabilizing fragile security gains that have put the issue of troop withdrawals on the U.S. and Iraqi political agenda. The competition to control Kirkuk, whose oil field contains 13 per cent of Iraq's proven reserves, has exposed a deep fault line between Arabs and Kurds.

In addition to the intermittent ethnic violence in the city, Kirkuk is at the centre of a national parliamentary gridlock. In July, Iraqi Kurdish parties and their ally in the ruling coalition, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, blocked a provincial election law - legislation seen by the United States and key regional actors as critical to recalibrating Iraq's shaken political system. The parliament approved a revised law in September on the basis of a compromise proposed and encouraged by the United Nations, whereby a separate parliamentary committee will address disputes on Kirkuk outside the framework of provincial elections, allowing voting to proceed in the rest of the country. So the fundamental disputes over the city remain, and the feasibility of future legislative efforts and the country's future depend on addressing the “Kirkuk veto.”

Paradoxically, this dispute also holds the potential for political compromise on the future shape of the Iraqi state. If the country's leaders can get Kirkuk right, there is real hope Iraq can stabilize into something more closely resembling a governable state.

Beyond the basic territorial issue, Kirkuk's future status touches on fundamental issues that divide Iraqis, including the nature of federalism, prospects for provincial elections and the management of oil wealth. The scope of these concerns and the difficulty of reaching piecemeal agreements complicate legislative progress, as do shifting parliamentary alliances and the Kurdish parties' ability to hold federal legislation hostage to their aspirations in Kirkuk.

The interlocking nature of the issues involved suggests that a comprehensive deal - a grand bargain - makes political sense. And it seems quite possible given the precedent set by a package deal earlier this year, when national legislators agreed on a national budget, an amnesty and provincial powers all at once.
Worth reading the rest.

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