Why Kirkuk is Important

The following story does captures the key context for why Kirkuk is so important for the future of Iraq and why insurgent activity has heated up here. But we had good news today. Early this morning I heard the deep steady drone as another medivac descended to the landing pad about 100 yards from me. So I made my way to EMEDS finding an enemy combatant had been shot in the leg. I can't say too much, but this was great news because this was a man we'd been looking to stop as he had been responsible for some of the mayhem experienced in the area.

Analysis: Battle looms of Kirkuk, its oil
UPI Energy Correspondent
WASHINGTON, Oct. 12 (UPI) -- Oil wealth in -- and historical ties to -- Kirkuk, in northern Iraq, is spurring increased violence in the once peaceful city as the future of it, and the country, is decided.

The Iraqi Parliament Wednesday cleared the way for Iraq to be carved into autonomous regions, which puts Kirkuk in a tug of war that could escalate to a full-scale civil war.

Oil revenue funds 96.3 percent of Iraq's government operations, according to Washington-based analysts PFC Energy, nearly all of which can be found in the north and south, where the Kurds and Shiites are majorities, respectively.

And although capacity is at around 2.5 million barrels per day, still below prewar levels, production is volatile and settling around 2 million barrels per day.

While estimates vary, oil fields in Kirkuk are estimated to have reserves of about 11 billion barrels, according to a 2005 survey of experts conducted by the Paris-based International Energy Agency.

The Kurdistan Regional Government, which has enjoyed autonomy since 1991, wants Kirkuk as its capital. The historically Kurdish city -- heavily mixed with Turkmen, Christian, Shiite and Sunni populations -- lies outside officially recognized KRG control. Its Kurdish majority was further eroded in the 1980s during Saddam Hussein's forced settling of Arabs there, displacing Kurds.

But as Kurds begin to return to Kirkuk, control over the territory has become more critical for directing its future with the region witnessing an upswing in violence more familiar to other areas of Iraq. The Kuwait News Agency reported five tortured bodies were found Thursday in the city.

Sunnis also eye Kirkuk as a vital part of a potential central autonomous region, viewing it as their only means of direct access to Iraq's oil wealth if the country splits in three.

"I don't see any possibilities in the near future" of resolving the Kirkuk issue, said Erik Leaver, policy outreach director of the Foreign Policy In Focus project at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, both because of the deep divisions within the city now and the bloodshed sure to follow any decision of Kirkuk's fate.

"It can't be a flashpoint like that," said Leaver. "They just can't handle it," he said, referring to the civilians trying to live in a battlefield country and the occupation forces trying to quell the impending civil war.

"The oil issue is sort of central to it," he said.

Kurdish politicians, wielding the power autonomy brings, are ensuring the Kirkuk debate happens.

"Their prominent role in drafting the constitution in 2005 enabled them to insert a paragraph that ordains a government-led de-Arabisation program in Kirkuk, to be followed by a census and local referendum by the end of 2007" to decide who would control the city, the International Crisis Group wrote in a July 18 report titled "Iraq and the Kurds: The Brewing Battle Over Kirkuk."

But Kirkuk as a part of the KRG, let alone the capital, is heavily opposed -- not only by Sunnis who would lose oil resources. Both Iran and Turkey fear a Kurdistan in Iraq would be too much inspiration for their Kurdish minorities.

"Within a year, therefore, Kurds will face a basic choice: to press ahead with the constitutional mechanisms over everyone's resistance and risk violent conflict, or take a step back and seek a negotiated solution," the ICG report states.

And with the Parliament's move Wednesday the clock's now ticking: Overcoming a protest boycott by Sunni and some Shiite members by just one vote it passed legislation outlining a process by which provinces can form autonomous regions, although any such move can't happen until April 2008.

Raed Jarrar, director of the Iraq Project at Global Exchange, said now politics will unfold fast on the local level, adding Kirkuk is likely to see "more clashes, more violence and less stability" as various factions compete to control the city and decide its destiny.

A powerful bloc of Shiites, led by the Iran-backed Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, is intent on creating a southern region, like Kurdistan in the north, which would control vast oil fields (and other possible reserves that energy experts have said could put Iraq at or near Saudi Arabia levels).

"The problem is there's no oil in Sunnistan," as John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, refers to the swath of land in the middle of Iraq Sunnis would be left with, especially if Kirkuk becomes part of Kurdistan.

"It's the one possibility of oil in Sunnistan, but it's not self-evidently in Sunnistan," said Pike, which means the Baghdad-like violence already evident in Kirkuk will get worse.

Pike says there's no telling how bad the fight over the city will be.

"I'm afraid we're going to find out," he said.