The fate of Kirkuk, Khanakin and Sinjar and their eventual reintegration into the Kurdish region continues to hound Bagdad. Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi created a "normalisation commission" with a view to addressing the Kurdish displacement. The commission, chaired by Hamid Majid Musa, secretary-general of the Iraqi Communist Party was allocated a budget of $80m but remained without members, without headquarters, and without money because the $80m was never transferred. And it never met.
The situation deteriorated still more under Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, who encouraged the Shia Arabs who fled Kirkuk after the fall of Saddam Hussein to come back.
But during his July meeting at Erbil with Massoud and Nechirvan Barzani (president and prime minister of the Kurdish region) Nuri al Maliki, the new Prime Minister of the Iraqi government dwelt at length on the implementation of article 140 of the new Iraqi constitution, which stipulates the organisation of a referendum in the disputed areas before December 2007.
He announced the creation of a new "normalisation commission" of nine members, chaired by justice minister Hachem Chibli - a liberal Shia whose wife is Kurdish - with a budget of $200m, which was immediately transferred. He even discussed details of the normalisation of the situation in Kirkuk, and the departure of the Arabs transplanted by Saddam Hussein within the framework of his campaign of Arabisation : their houses should be bought back, and they should be provided with tents and money in order to resettle in Southern Iraq, allowing the Kurds to return home.
Moreover, Nuri al Maliki committed himself to reintegrating the districts which were arbitrarily detached by Saddam Hussein (Kifri, Tuz Khurmatu, Kalar and Chemchemal) into the governorate of Kirkuk. This, he said, would be implemented by government decree in March 2007. A census would take place in July 2007, and the referendum in December 2007. Already several thousand Shia Arabs from Kirkuk have sent a delegation to the Kurdish parliament in Erbil indicating they are ready to move if provided with the necessary assistance.
Whether this timetable will be respected and Nuri al Maliki can impose his will on the other members of the government remains to be seen. Experts underline that the "commission for the solution of conflicted property" has already received more than 40.000 files, of which only 3.000 have been resolved.
But even if the authorities in Bagdad display their good will, it will be physically impossible to solve tens of thousands of cases within one year and to organise and assist the departure of the Arabs and the return of the Kurds who, in most cases, have no houses or schools.
And many Kurds are convinced that, in spite of the prime ministers commitment, Arab leaders in Bagdad will do everything in their power to postpone a referendum indefinitely. One concern is that no one knows how it will be organised : district by district, or globally for the disputed areas.
The Kurdish leaders are divided on what line to follow if this happens. "If the Arabs refuse to organise the referendum, we will apply the law of Sinjar -- i.e. we will use force", says a Kurdish general. "There is no way to compromize on the date of the referendum, it is December 2007. If we do, we destroy everything", claims Adnan Mufti, a PUK politician and the speaker of the Kurdish parliament. Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani is more conciliatory : "There is no other option if we want a working federal solution. But the question of Kirkuk is a very complicated issue. What is most important is to have a strong will to solve the issue. If needed, we must be patient. Maybe the referendum will not take place at the fixed date. We want a political solution".
Many Kurds are haunted by the fear that the USA, UK and Turkey will push Bagdad on proposing a "special statute" for Kirkuk, which would, in fact, scrap its reintegration into a Kurdish region whose fate is already very uncertain.
Which future for Kurdistan ?
Meanwhile, Kurdish leaders talk more and more openly of independence. Massoud Barzani has repeated several times that it is a "legitimate right", but that the Kurds, aware of geopolitical conditions, appear satisfied for the time being with a federal solution.
Massoud Barzanis adviser, Fuad Husssein, says Kurds and Arabs should agree on a truly federal solution, with the creation of three federal regions, Sunni, Shia and Kurdish, with Bagdad as a federal capital. "If not", he says, the Kurds will separate . "provided we enjoy the support of the US and the presence of American bases in Kurdistan". If not ? Fuad Hussein only answers : "What can the peshmergas (Kurdish fighters) do against Turkey" ?
Those demanding some form of independence tend to forget the brief existence of the Republic of Mahabad (22 January--17 December 1946), exactly 60 years ago. Set up in Iranian Kurdistan under the shadow, if not the protection, of the Soviet armed forces which occupied the northern part of Iran, the Kurdish Republic governed by Qazi Mohammed collapsed when the Soviets were forced to withdraw their forces from Iran and abandoned the Kurds.
The Kurds are perhaps too complcent about US sipport. Their current situation is based on a "Region of Kurdistan", created in 1991 at the initiative of the Allies of the Big Coalition (mainly US, UK, France and Turkey). It continued developing until the end of Saddam Husseins regime, under the protection of the western air forces based at Incirlik, in Southern Turkey and still enjoys American protection nowadays.
Kurdish leaders claim serenely that there will not be any big change in American policy in the near future, that the US will not abandon Iraq, and that the "treasons" of the 1975 Algiers agreement and of the 1991 Kurdish uprising will not be repeated. "We had and we have shared interests with the United States", claims Khaled Salih, spokesman of Nechirvan Barzani. "Removing Saddam Hussein, recreating an Iraqi state, protecting Iraq from its neighbours interferences. The Americans will still be here in coming years".
"We are now an important factor in Iraq", adds Adnan Mufti. "We have a strong presence in the government and we are at the top of the American interests list. We are not worried about our American relations. Massoud Barzani was welcomed as President of the Kurdish Region at the White House by President George W. Bush, and many Kurdish delegations were received in Washington And the Americans cannot withdraw from Iraq. If they do, they loose the war against terrorism".
Adnan Mufti dismisses a US departure as less than 5% likely : "The civil war goes on, the Americans leave, the Turks invade us, the Iranians come in to support the Shias, and the Saudis to support the Sunnis. And then what happens to the poor Kurds ? Several millions Kurds cannot go to the mountains. No way".
On the other hand, American scholar, Michael Gunther, reminded recently a Kurdish audience that: "the US is on the other side of the world and will not stay here for ever".
And many Kurds do not conceal the fact that they are worried. "The situation remains unstable", confides Mgr Petros Harbole, Chaldean bishop of Dohok. "If the Americans leave, the Turks will invade us. We can not resist for even one month"
(The Middle East magazine, December 2006)
Ibrahim Ali Zadeh Komala Iran