Thursday, May 19, 2011

Battle for Kirkuk looms

Kirkuk is a hotly contested city in northern Iraq's "disputed territories". Home to Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and Assyrian-Chaldean Christians, oil-rich, hugely strategic Kirkuk is essentially Iraq in miniature.

The looming Battle for Kirkuk looms could well turn out to be the mother-of-all-wars. Turkey, regional Shi'ites, and regional Sunnis all have strong interests. Recently, the United States Institute of Peace identified Kirkuk the greatest threat to Iraq's stability. As the US withdrawal approaches, tensions are escalating and the stakes are being raised, leaving Christians exceedingly vulnerable.

See: Kirkuk’s Conundrum in the Wake of the American Withdrawal
by Mohammed A. Salih, for Rudaw. 10 May 2011

Background

After the 1968 revolution, Saddam Hussein consolidated Sunni Arab and Baathist control over Kirkuk's vast oil reserves through a policy of "Arabization". From the early 1970s onwards, hundreds of thousands of non-Arabs (mostly Kurds) were driven out of Kirkuk and replaced with loyal Arabs. This process was accelerated after the failed uprising of 1991.

However everything changed after the regime fell in 2003, and the process essentially went into reverse. Article 58 of Iraq's new constitution stipulated that all non-original residents of Kirkuk province (i.e. Arabs imported by Saddam Hussein) must return to their places of origin, and all displaced families (predominantly Kurds) must return to the province and claim their properties. This later became Article 140, which further mandates that a census be conducted ahead of a referendum to determine whether Kirkuk will be annexed to autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan or remain under federal control from Baghdad. The spectre of a referendum on status has only inflamed ethnic tensions. The situation is highly volatile.

But Kirkuk is not coveted by Arabs and Kurds alone. Kirkuk is also historically and strategically important to neighbouring Turkey, to pan-Turkists, and to Iraqi Turkmen. Turks do not want to see the Kurds further empowered, for not only do Iraqi Kurds provide sanctuary to Turkish Kurd PKK terrorists, but a strong Iraqi Kurdistan could fan Kurdish regional ambitions.

Meanwhile, the Turks would very much like to see Kirkuk's oil flowing north through Turkey rather than south through Baghdad and Basra.

See: The Challenge in Iraq's Other Cities: Kirkuk
By Lionel Beehner, Council on Foreign Relations. 30 June 2006

Claims in Conflict
Reversing Ethnic Cleansing in Northern Iraq
Human Rights Watch, 2 August 2004

Negotiating Kirkuk
Posted By Denise Natali, to Foreign Policy, Friday, 6 May 2011

After the city of Kirkuk fell to Kurdish forces on 10 April 03, the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITC) moved its headquarters from Arbil to Kirkuk. Arabs, many of whom had lived in Kirkuk for 30 years and more, were driven out at gunpoint, forced to leave all their possessions behind.

During the 2010 elections, in order to challenge the ruling Kurdish bloc, the ITC entered a coalition with Ayad Allawi's secular parliamentary bloc, Al-Iraqiyya, which is strong in the "disputed territories". A UN-sponsored meeting on Kirkuk scheduled to be held in Baghdad on 5 May, had to be cancelled after Arab and Turkmen representatives refused to attend unless the Kurds were denied participation. Kirkuk Arabs are requesting protection, claiming an escalation in Kurdish aggression against them. Distrust and hostility abound.

As Mohammed A. Salih noted in his article for Rudaw: "The Kurds dominate the police force, internal security, and most of the government departments, while the Arabs have a tight grip on the army and their powerbase is strong in the surrounding villages and towns. These two wings of Iraq’s official forces charged with keeping the country safe have never concealed their distrust towards each other.

"Recently, Kurdish security forces and soldiers from the Iraqi army came into armed clashes in the center of Kirkuk in broad daylight where two Kurdish security officers were killed. Insurgents on the other hand, have targeted the city’s population with car bombs and the police with roadside bombs whenever they have had a chance.

"An Iraqi security official told the Arabic-language, Baghdad-based daily Almada, on condition of anonymity, that the American withdrawal is 'a dangerous threat' to Kirkuk."

On 12 May, less than two weeks after Er┼čat Salihi became the head Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITC) Member of Parliament and ITC Kirkuk City President, Salihi's heavily -guarded home in Kirkuk was attacked with explosives while the family were all inside. While no-one was hurt -- the attack was clearly designed to send a political message -- this attack and the subsequent attack on investigating police, were highly organised. This marks the first time a Turkmen leader has been specifically targeted in Iraq, further raising the stakes.

See: Why violence against Turkmens in Iraq is increasing
By Hasan Kanbolat, Today's Zaman. 16 May 2011

IRAQ'S BESIEGED AND IMPERILLED REMNANT CHRISTIANS

Underneath it all, normally ignored by the media, is the smallest and most vulnerable of all Kirkuk's constituent groups: the Assyrian-Chaldean Christians. Indigenous to the Nineveh Plains of Upper Mesopotamia, they now constitute a mere remnant, comprising less than 1 percent. Consequently they are politically and militarily inconsequential: a threat to no-one. To Islamic fundamentalists, however, they are infidel 'dogs': i.e. unclean, undesirable and unwanted.

On Saturday 14 May 2011, terrorists abducted Ashur Issa Yaqub (29) -- a Chaldean Christian construction worker, husband and father of three -- demanding an unobtainable US$100,000 ransom.

On Monday 16 May, police found Yaqub's mutilated body, dumped in the open. According to provincial health chief Sadiq Omar Rasul, the body "carried traces of torture and the bites of dogs". But 'traces' of torture is a gross understatement. The torture that was inflicted upon this young man is beyond comprehension: his eyes had been gouged out, his ears cut off and his face skinned. He had also been attacked by dogs and partially beheaded.

Kirkuk: young Christian abducted, tortured and beheaded
AINA 16 May 2011

See: Iraq Assyrian Killed, Mutilated in North Iraq (WARNING: graphic)
AINA 16 May 2011

The gruesome murder -- which the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Kirkuk, Mgr Louis Sako, labelled an "inhuman act" -- has sent shockwaves of terror through Kirkuk's remnant Christian community.

Archbishop Sako spoke to Compass Direct News from Rome. Compass reports: "While noting that the murder was unusually brutal, the archbishop said it was probably the work of criminal opportunists trying to make money, and that Yaqub was not necessarily targeted as a Christian."

This is wishful thinking on the Archbishop's part, for as Compass also reported, Ashur Issa Yaqub had already been singled out by al Qaeda militants who had pressured his employer to fire him precisely because he was a Christian.

Furthermore, while the kidnappers had demanded US$100,000 ransom, they could not even wait more than 48 hrs before they succumbed to their hatred and tortured this young Christian husband and father to death. Their hatred clearly could not be constrained, not even by the prospect of ransom monies.

If/when war erupts, Islamic jihadists will doubtless seek to exploit the chaos to eliminate the Christian presence, and not only in Kirkuk.

The Battle for Kirkuk could well be the last straw for Iraq's besieged and imperilled remnant Christians.