U.N. experts urge power sharing in Kirkuk

04/23/2009 12:02 AM

04/23/2009 12:03 AM

BAGHDAD — A special U.N. task force urged Iraqis on Wednesday to resolve their bitter dispute over oil-rich Kirkuk by preserving the city's territorial integrity and sharing control between the Kurds and Arabs who lay claim to it.

The U.N. recommendations are part of a long-awaited report that's meant to help Iraq's Arab-led central government end its disagreement with Kurdish officials over who should control Kirkuk, which lies 150 miles north of Baghdad.

Analysts said they didn't expect the document to ease any of the discord, however.

"I think everyone will reject the report's findings," said Joost Hiltermann, the International Crisis Group's senior Iraq analyst. "I think it presents a brilliant opportunity for compromise, but I'm not convinced either party is ready for that.

"Both likely think they can win more if they fight."

The document was handed to leaders on each side Wednesday. Though it wasn't made public, the U.N. released some details: It contains four options for possibly resolving the Kirkuk issue, as well as recommendations for ending disagreements over 14 other contested areas in northern Iraq.

All the Kirkuk options involve political compromise and power sharing, the U.N. statement said. All four options also treat Kirkuk as a single entity and don't include plans for splitting the territory, the statement added.

"We are all too aware that tensions have recently risen in parts of the disputed areas, and also that there are more issues than just the territorial ones that divide the parties," Staffan de Mistura, who heads the U.N. mission in Iraq, said in the statement. "That is why we have done the work in the way we have, and that is why we are hoping that sustained and serious dialogue will now follow."

Discord between Sunni Muslim Kurds and Sunni Arabs has long existed in Iraq, but it's worsened dramatically in recent months.

The disagreement over ethnically mixed Kirkuk has been among the most heated. Kurds, Arabs and Turkomen all populate the city, which Iraq's central government formally controls. Kurdish officials, however, argue that the territory belongs to Kurdistan, Iraq's semi-independent northern region.

Kirkuk is historically Kurdish, but under Saddam Hussein's Sunni Arab-led regime, Kurds were forced out and the city was repopulated with Arabs. After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Kurds began moving back and displacing Arabs.

Hiltermann, of the International Crisis Group, said that Kurdish officials would be especially unhappy with the U.N.'s report.

"None of the options involve giving Kirkuk to Kurdistan, and I think that may be all the Kurds are willing to accept," he said.

He added that Kurdish leaders have put themselves in a particularly difficult position to compromise. "They've been telling their people that Kirkuk is theirs, and that it's only a matter of time before that's formalized," Hiltermann said. "It will be very difficult for them to accept less at this point."

Kirkuk was the only Iraqi territory outside Kurdistan that didn't hold provincial elections in January. The national parliament decided last year to postpone balloting in Kirkuk because legislators couldn't agree on how to deal with the power struggle there.

Kirkuk is estimated to be sitting on as much as 4 percent of the world's oil wealth. Attacks have continued there despite an overall drop in violence across much of the country.

In many ways, Iraq's Kurdish-Arab problem may be the biggest threat to the country's long-term stability. Leaders on both sides have suggested that they'd resort to arms to protect their interests in disputed areas, and U.S. officials have said they fear that the tensions could explode quickly into large-scale violence.

The U.N. announced about a year ago that it would begin studying ways to resolve the dispute over Kirkuk and other contested areas peaceably.

To develop its recommendations, the U.N. said, it worked closely with Iraqi authorities on national, regional and local levels.

The 14 other disputed areas addressed in the new report include territory in the provinces of Nineveh, Kirkuk, Salahuddin and Diyala.

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