EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Assuming the U.S.-led military operation to topple Saddam
Hussein proceeds, the threat is very great of large-scale violence, centred on Kirkuk,
erupting in Northern Iraq between Kurds and Turks. If that is to be averted, the United States
must urgently take three important steps: get its own forces to Kirkuk
first, ensure that Turkey exercises restraint, and simultaneously persuade the Iraqi Kurds to take no
action that will risk provoking Turkey.
The native Kurdish population has succeeded in carving out a degree of de
facto political independence since Iraqi forces withdrew unilaterally from the area more than
a decade ago. Freed from government domination and largely sheltered from external interference,
the Kurds have lived in a bubble, developing the early trappings of democracy and enjoying the
economic benefits of the UN "Oil-for-Food" program, even as intermittent fighting between the
two principal Kurdish parties effectively cut the region into two halves. A U.S.-led war in Iraq
is very likely to upset this arrangement, and prompts the question: what's next for the Iraqi Kurds?
Deep in their hearts, the Iraqi Kurds want nothing less than
full independence, if not in all of "Kurdistan" (a longed-for nation-state without precise
boundaries), then at least in Northern Iraq. Aware of the odds, they keep their secessionist dreams
mostly to themselves and say they will settle for no more than an expanded autonomy arrangement,
possibly as part of a federal Iraq. The present configuration of forces, however, might well augur
something entirely different for Iraq's Kurds, a scenario with which they are already familiar:
a limited autonomy or, worse, if not even their minimal demands are met, a forced return to the
mountains and renewed insurrection against central control.
In any one of these scenarios, the future status of the city of Kirkuk
will play a pivotal part. The Kurds are not the only ones with their eyes on what to them is the
ultimate prize. Claimed not only by them but other minority groups such as the Turkomans
and Assyrians, not to mention the Arab population that, as a result of the Baath regime's deliberate
Arabisation policy, has swelled its ranks in recent years, the city of Kirkuk is both the object of
desire and a source of future strife. Moreover, any central government in Baghdad is likely to
assert its claim to Kirkuk and environs as indivisible parts of Iraq. This is as true today, under
Saddam Hussein, as it is bound to be the case under a successor regime in the aftermath of a
U.S.-led war, and has to do as much with the emergence of Iraq as a unitary Arab state from the
wreckage of the Ottoman empire in the early 20th century as with the fact that the
Kirkuk-Mosul region sits atop oil-bearing formations containing 10 billion barrels of proven reserves.
In contemplating their future inside or outside Iraq, the Kurdish parties
know they will have to contend with a number of powerful actors who may either assist or thwart
their ambitions. Among these are, most prominently, the United States, Turkey, and the
non-Kurdish Iraqi opposition groups with which the Kurdish parties are currently aligned. Iran,
which has its own interests to protect in Northern Iraq, is also carefully eyeing developments from
the sidelines. Syria's Kurdish population has also been a source of concern for that country's
governing regime. Nor is the majority Arab population of Iraq particularly sympathetic
to Kurdish aspirations.
The United States has publicly expressed its commitment to the territorial
integrity of Iraq. This is another way of saying that independence for the Kurds is not for the
United States an acceptable outcome to the Iraq crisis. Turkey, too, has stressed the importance of
a unitary Iraq, and for reasons largely having to do with its relationship to its own Kurdish
population will not tolerate any degree of sovereignty for Iraqi Kurds. For years Turkish forces
have been in Northern Iraq combating guerilla forces of its own Kurdish opposition, the Kurdish
Workers Party (PKK). At least several thousand Turkish troops are now in Northern Iraq, occupying a
key airstrip, and tens of thousands more are poised to enter the country. If last-minute talks between
the United States and Turkey fail to yield an agreement over basing and overflight rights for U.S.
forces, Turkey may choose not to heed Washington's call to refrain from unilateral action in Iraq's
Kurdish region, while Washington may not be able to deploy a force in the North sufficiently large
to block any move on the part of either the Turks or the Kurds. Even in the event of an agreement,
Turkey may be drawn by its own sense of its national interests or by actions taken by the Kurds.
In the gathering storm this has left the Kurds of Iraq with
essentially two options, both of which are fraught with serious risk: to
cooperate with the United States in its war against the regime in Baghdad and
thereby hope to extract the most favorable concessions, short of independence,
from those who will rule a post-Saddam Iraq; or to gamble on their own military
capabilities in the chaos of war and make a headlong dash for Kirkuk, thereby
creating facts on the ground that any successor regime in Baghdad, American
commanders in Iraq or the government of neighbouring Turkey would find difficult to reverse.
Either approach may fail. After a decade of lukewarm support
for the Kurds, driven in part by the desire to keep the Baghdad regime on the defensive, the
United States will predictably throw its full weight behind a successor government of its own
creation or liking. In the messy bargaining process that is sure to follow a transition in region>Iraq,
the Kurds may be rewarded for their support of the American war effort, but not
by as much as they might wish. They will have served their role, and, more
importantly, the U.S. will have to address the needs of non-Kurdish Iraqis who constitute a
significant majority of the population and who view Kurdish aspirations with hostility. Kurds may
come to be seen as an irritant and potential spoiler, but they will be bereft of the leverage they
can bring to bear in pre-war Iraq today. But a less than satisfactory settlement of the Kurdish
question, including one that would not give the Kurds certain rights to Kirkuk, might
trigger a return to armed conflict and prolonged instability in the North.
Likewise, a Kurdish rush on Kirkuk might backfire, even it does not elicit
Turkish military intervention (the worst-case scenario). Assuming that the Kurds can both capture
and hold Kirkuk, a feat they signally failed to pull off during the post-Gulf War uprising in
March 1991 when they were counter-attacked by superior Iraqi forces, it would
set them up for a direct confrontation with U.S. troops. Moreover, in the Kirkuk region itself there
may be considerable mayhem if Kurdish civilians, forced out by the Baathist regime over the past
decades and now backed by armed Kurdish factions, seek to return, only to find their homes
occupied by settlers brought in to Arabise the area. Under Kurdish tutelage, the Baath regime's
ethnic "cleansing" of Kirkuk may be replaced with a new wave of expulsions and attendant violence,
this time targeting the region's Arab population.
There is a third scenario, one in which the Kurdish parties would
initially exercise restraint and stay in their area while Kurdish civilians in Kirkuk, joined
by those returning from their displacement camps in Kurdish-controlled territory, would take
administrative control of the city. Unlike the second pro-active scenario, the Kurdish parties
(militias), while themselves appearing to play a responsible role, would here effectively
encourage the displaced Kirkukis to act, then use the civilians' return as justification
to enter the city themselves: an act that in turn might trigger both Turkish intervention and
a military move by the Kurdish parties to support their kin. Given past rivalry over control of
resources and domination of the Kurdish national movement, the fragile pact between Masoud
Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)
may collapse in their rush to seize command of "their" Kurds in Kirkuk.
How is one to prevent matters from spinning out of control while protecting
the basic rights of the Kurds, who have suffered so grievously at the hands of the Baghdad regime
during its long reign? Two challenges present themselves. The first is to prevent any major
confrontation between Kurds and Turks during the duration of the war. The second is to help put
together a structure for the Iraqi state that preserves its territorial integrity while addressing
the legitimate aspirations of the Kurdish people. They are interrelated, of course, for the
more secure the Kurds feel about their future after the war, the less likely
they are to take matters into their own hands during the war.
To meet these challenges, three things must happen. First, it is imperative that
U.S. forces get to Kirkuk quickly – before the Turks, and before Kurdish forces.
This is a pre-condition for preventing a dangerous and unpredictable conflict between Turkey
and the Kurds. Only a strong military force in Kirkuk (preferably a neutral one, not including
Turkish troops) can maintain the peace and set the stage for a subsequent fair adjudication by a
competent and impartial body of competing claims to property and resources.
Secondly, to buttress that effort, the United States should make publicly clear to the
Kurds that it expects them not to take any action that risks provoking Turkey, and in particular
that they should refrain from unilateral military steps and consent to a temporary international
presence in Kirkuk. In exchange, the U.S. would make an explicit, public guarantee to the Kurds
that it will protect them from attack (from either Turkey or a post-Saddam regime in Baghdad)
and ensure they have a major role in the creation of a new Iraqi state, with their concerns
adequately addressed and their achievements recognized. The Kurdish parties must be persuaded
to overcome the deep suspicion born of their historical dealings with Washington and agree
to work with the United States and other members of the international community to bring about
a post-war situation in Iraq in which Kurds can live in peace and security and in full enjoyment of
their human rights
Thirdly, and simultaneously, the United States should reiterate to Turkey
that it too will need to show restraint and in particular avoid any unilateral military moves in
Northern Iraq. There is little doubt that Turkish forces will enter Northern Iraq if they feel it
necessary, regardless of Washington's pressure, and the failure so far to conclude a U.S.-Turkey
military agreement in advance of the war has further complicated matters. But the U.S. must do
everything within its power to both lessen Turkey's concerns (by restraining the Kurds) and
heighten the political and diplomatic costs of its intervention.
This report does not address the question whether a U.S.-led war against
Iraq will or should take place: the recommendations which follow are premised on the assumption
that, for better or worse, it will.
To the United States:
1. Urgently place U.S. forces in Northern Iraq to protect the Kurds against
Iraqi forces and to provide a buffer between Turkish forces and Iraqi Kurdish militias in order
to prevent violence and reassure the Kurds that Turkey will not expand its mission beyond the
legitimate pursuit of its security interests in the border area.
2. Make clear to the Kurdistan Regional Government and militias affiliated
with the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan that it will resolutely oppose
any unilateral military or political initiatives, including entering Kirkuk or Mosul, that would
provoke Turkey or prejudge a consensual settling of the Kurdish question.
3. Place U.S. military officers in Turkish-secured camps within the territory of
Iraq designed to shelter Iraqi displaced persons to oversee their safety.
4. Reiterate its call on Turkey to continue exercise military restraint and, in
particular, to restrict deployment of its forces to the immediate area of the Iraqi-Turkish border.
5. Ensure that Turkish forces withdraw from Northern Iraq forthwith once the
region has fallen under overall U.S. command and central authority has been re-established in Baghdad.
6. Once U.S. forces are present in Mosul and Kirkuk, act to protect the local
population from possible reprisals and their property from destruction, and administer these two
cities until replaced by a neutral force, possibly a UN peace keeping mission.
7. In managing the political transition in Iraq, commit to ensuring a major
Kurdish voice in the transitional process that will decide the ultimate constitutional structure
8. Limit any military operations inside Iraq to the immediate border area
in a defensive posture aimed at maintaining security and taking care of any displaced persons.
9. Withdraw troops from Northern Iraq forthwith once the region has fallen
under overall U.S. command and central authority has been re-established in Baghdad.
10. With regard to Iraqis fleeing toward the Turkish border, and
assuming no preparedness to open that border generally to Iraqi refugees:
(a) in coordination with the U.S., and until such time as Turkish troops
are withdrawn, ensure the security of camps in areas under their control that shelter Iraqi
(b) provide international relief organizations with access to displaced Iraqis
living in the camps and work in close coordination with such organisations;
(c) be prepared to open the border should Iraqis need to escape
a humanitarian emergency or military attack; and
(d) allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to
participate in the screening process for any Iraqi who crosses into Turkey.
To the Kurdish Parties and the Kurdistan Regional Government:
11. Publicly commit to making no unilateral military moves inside Iraq.
12. Prevent displaced Kurdish civilians returning to Kirkuk from
Kurdish-controlled territory from carrying weapons, and issue public warnings
they should refrain from mob justice and "reverse ethnic cleansing" at pain of prosecution.
13. Publicly commit to a multi-ethnic Kirkuk with claims to property to be
settled by an impartial international technical body to be established by the UN Security Council.
14. Publicly commit to protect the fundamental rights of minorities living
among the Kurds, in particular the Turkomans and Assyrians/Chaldeans.
15. Refrain from military action against other Kurdish parties, including those
of an Islamist bent, that are not engaged in armed opposition to the Kurdistan Regional Government.
16. Prohibit the use of Kurdish-controlled territory by the Kurdish Workers
Party (PKK) of Turkey to support, prepare or launch military operations against Turkey.
17. Make every effort to coordinate efforts of the Kurdish
parties to prepare for the establishment of a new Iraqi government.
To the United Nations Security Council:
18. Set up an impartial international technical body to
adjudicate property claims in Kirkuk.
To the international donor community
19. Urgently provide humanitarian assistance for Kurdish displaced persons.
Amman/Brussels, 19 March 2003