The long-standing dispute over an oil-rich Iraqi city may have reached a critical hour as Kurdish Peshmerga forces now claim to have taken control of Kirkuk.
As neighbouring countries and the international community scramble for an appropriate response to the so-called Sunni rebellion rapidly gaining ground across Iraq, Kurdish troops have stirred controversy by stepping in to fill what they say was a "security vacuum" in Kirkuk. Indeed, while frightened residents welcomed the move, it has raised pertinent questions over whether Iraq, in its present form, will survive the mayhem.
The Kurds, a nation of over 30 million spread across several countries, have maintained a semi-autonomous region in the north of Iraq since a Western no-fly-zone (above the 36th parallel) was imposed at the end of the Gulf war in 1991. In the years since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Kurdish region has prospered thanks to unilateral oil sales through Turkey and the inpouring of billions of dollars of foreign investment that have fuelled an unprecedented construction boom.
Yet the Kurds have never made a secret of their aspirations for full-fledged independence, and their yearning for what they consider the missing piece of the puzzle, Kirkuk - often called the "Kurdish Jerusalem". That is, until last week when Kurdish Peshmerga forces entered the city on the pretext of "protecting civilian lives" after Iraqi soldiers reportedly abandoned their posts.
Ahmed Askari, head of the Kirkuk provincial council's security committee, insists the Peshmerga are working alongside police and other security forces in the city.
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"The Peshmerga are not in [Sunni Arab-populated] Hawija because this area was patrolled by the Iraqi army. Even when they deserted their posts, the Peshmerga did not go into that area," he said. "The people of Kirkuk want to feel safe so that they can go about their daily lives in a secure environment. Since the Iraqi army collapsed, they are happy that another force - in this case the Peshmerga - have secured the city and the civilian population," Askari told Al Jazeera.
But the commander of Iraqi ground forces in Kirkuk, Lt Gen Ali Ghaidan Majid, has called the Kurdish move a "dangerous development" and a violation of an agreement between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
The proverbial promised land, Kirkuk, less than 100km from the Kurdish regional capital, Erbil, has been a bone of contention for at least a century, and the centre of a war over demographics since the mid-1960s. Mainly made up of Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians and Arabs, each have their own claims on the historic city.
Until the discovery of oil in Kirkuk shortly after World War I, some claimed the city was mainly populated by Turkmen, who traced their arrival in the area back to the Seljuk period in the 10th century - although this is fiercely disputed. The Kurds have viewed Kirkuk as their capital since Sulayman Beg - of the ruling Baban clan - gained control of the province sometime in the 18th century.
In 1923, the Treaty of Lausanne annexed the Ottoman Vilayet of Mosul, which included the city of Kirkuk, to the newly formed Kingdom of Iraq. The nascent oil industry spurred work opportunities for Iraqis from various parts of the country and somewhat altered the original demography of the city.
In the early 1970s, Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani, father of the current KRG president, laid formal claim to Kirkuk's oilfields. This prompted Baghdad to ramp up its "Arabisation" campaign in the city.
According to Human Rights Watch, the regime of Saddam Hussein systematically expelled hundreds of thousands Kurds and Assyrians from Kirkuk and its environs, and resettled Arab families in their places.
During the last decade, the Kurds have waged an active re-Kurdification process in the city. Since April 2003, thousands of internally displaced Kurds have returned to Kirkuk and other formerly Arabised regions to reclaim their homes and lands.
Today, the Kurds believe that a census would show a solid Kurdish majority in the city, even though the demographic composition of the city remains contentious. A referendum on whether Kirkuk province should become part of Iraqi Kurdistan was due to be held in 2007, but it has been delayed repeatedly due to the lack of security and political will.
Since Peshmerga forces took control of Kirkuk city on June 12, there has been an intense debate over what step the KRG intends to take next. On June 14, the Kurdish forces stationed in Saadiya, south of Kirkuk, reportedly came under attack by an Iraqi helicopter gunship, leaving six Peshmerga dead and 25 wounded. It appears to have been ruled as friendly fire, but the incident has intensified the mistrust between Baghdad and Erbil.
With Kirkuk firmly in grasp, the word on the Kurdish street is this may be the opportune moment to either annex the city to the KRG, or more controversially, make a unilateral declaration of independence.
Some Kurdish politicians, off the record, have already started suggesting Kirkuk ought to be an independent city, rather than become part of the KRG.
Asked whether the unprecedented Kurdish troop presence in Kirkuk might lead to an annexation, a KRG spokesperson, Safeen Dizayee, stressed that the Peshmerga had been "invited" to provide protection.
"The Kirkuk Provincial Council voted unanimously to invite Peshmerga forces for protection and to prevent a complete vacuum, which would otherwise have been seized upon by extremists. It should be noted that without Peshmerga forces, Kirkuk would have descended into chaos and violence, as other governorates recently have," he said.
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Many pundits have questioned the motivations of the Kurdish regional authorities in deploying troops to fight "alongside" the Iraqi army, while there appears to be no concrete evidence of any putative agreements between Baghdad and Erbil. Are the Kurds fighting for Iraq or are they fighting for a piece of it?
"The KRG remains committed to the security of Iraq, as we have from the beginning," said Dizayee.
However, owing to the "major shortcomings in capability and capacity", he said "the international community may offer support in the interest of promoting stability in Iraq and throughout the Middle East". Asked whether the Kurds support a foreign intervention to halt the sudden escalation of violence in the country and curtail further gains by ISIL, Dizayee said the Kurds view the problem as an "Iraqi issue" that must be handled by "Iraq's security apparatus".
Joseph A Kechichian, a senior fellow at the Riyadh-based King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, doubts the Kurds will engage in a full-fledged campaign to oppose the Iraqi Army.
"Rather, their preference is to reap the fruits of the disintegration under way at the lowest possible cost, to avoid long-term military confrontations along the Iranian, Turkish and Syrian fronts, in addition, of course, to the anticipated opposition from Baghdad," he explained.
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Neighbouring Turkey may have the most at stake in the battles raging across Iraq, especially in areas with sizeable Turkmen populations such as Kirkuk. For over a decade, Turkey has enjoyed privileged trade ties with Iraqi Kurdistan. But more significantly, last week, Turkey and Iraqi Kurds announced the sale of more than one million barrels of Kurdish oil to world markets via Turkey's Ceyhan port, despite Baghdad's protests that the sale was "unauthorised".
Long opposed to the very idea of a "Kurdistan" for fear that it might embolden the 13.4 million Kurds living in Turkey to pursue similar goals, some Turkish analysts surmise that recent developments in the region may have softened Ankara's position on the matter.
Ihsan Yilmaz, a Turkish political analyst and a columnist forToday's Zaman newspaper, said he believes that in spite of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's emotional anti-Western rhetoric, ultimately, "Ankara will obey the US administration". "In the past, Turkey did not want Kurds to have Kirkuk as they did not want them to grow richer and more powerful. This was the Kemalist approach.
But the AKP - with its neo-Ottoman vision - has persuaded the Kemalist establishment that Turkey must be friendly with Iraqi Kurdistan, and this has been a wise and realistic strategy," he said. "Still I am not too sure AKP would be happy to see Kurds grow so powerful with the help of Kirkuk's annexation. They may prefer a weaker Kurdistan, one that is under Turkey's influence."'
Indeed, recent events have reignited debates over which horse Ankara is betting on in the Iraqi race. According to Yilmaz, Turkey's AKP-led government is faced with a veritable dilemma.
"On the one hand, AKP politicians do not like [Iraqi PM] Nouri al-Maliki who has been discriminating against the Sunnis and does not allow Kurdish oil to be sold through Turkey. On the other hand, they do not want to upset their US allies by being overly hostile to him," he explained.
"Ultimately, however, Ankara cannot overlook the rise of genuine Kurdish power next door, and must come to terms with irredentist claims made by Kurds and other minorities," said Kechichian.
Strangely, this is the same worry that Iran faces, given its own multi-cultural mosaic.
While it is unclear which path the Kurds will take, with all eyes on ISIL's charge towards Baghdad, one is reminded of the old Iraqi saying: "He who controls Kirkuk, controls Iraq."
The challenge that the KRG must now address, and perhaps resolve, is how best to tame its long-term goals: focus on an independent Kurdistan while harnessing temporary gains in Kirkuk.
Follow Tanya Goudsouzian on Twitter: @ummanais
Source: Al Jazeera