The Other Side of the Kirkuk Flashpoint

It takes about half an hour to ascend the well-paved highway from bustling Irbil to the mountaintop villas and elite homes where Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), lives. It may be that from those heights that the intricacies of compromise do not come easily. Barzani has made a series of defiant statements to reporters lately about relations with Baghdad and the tangled and emotional issue of who should rule the oil-rich, mostly Kurdish city of Kirkuk.

But there may have been some hint of flexibility in his comments when NEWSWEEK spoke to Barzani in his lofty palace last week. True, he stated that Kurds could view the city as "occupied" if their demands are disregarded and would turn to defending themselves as occupied people have the right to, that is, by fighting. Kirkuk is a deeply held piece of heritage held by Kurds who have historic reasons to fear Baghdad central governments. The dispute could touch of violence between Kurdish and Arab conventional forces--tank brigades and infantry--dwarfing the insurgency and terrorism Iraq has already suffered. U.S. officials are smart to take him at his word and put this friction at the top of their concerns.

But when asked about comments in which he had rejected United Nations proposals for solving the problem, he said his rejection as not total – not quite. "We have not lost hope," he said. "We are still working and still engaged and we will continue to the last moment with the UN and all the relevant people in order to follow legal and constitutional matters and find a solution." Reminded that there were Kurdish representatives working with the UN on the problem, he said: "Working with the UN does not mean we have accepted these proposals and at the same time it does not mean we have rejected everything."

According to the Iraqi constitution, written under U.S. supervision in 2005, Kirkuk residents are supposed to be able to decide their fate in a public referendum. The vote was required by the end of 2007 but has been delayed despite Kurdish protestations. In fact, the extra time has accommodated the return of thousands of Kurds displaced by Saddam Hussein's "Arabization" of the region. Arab leaders allege many more have come in too. No one knows the demographic breakdown of the cities Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen and a census – with all its own controversial sidelights – is scheduled for October. But the Kurds probably hold a majority, something that frightens the minority factions. That's probably why Barzani slyly stresses the referendum – secure that the Kurdish will would triumph.

But the constitution does not spell out what the referendum question is. Barzani says it should be: "Do you want Kirkuk to be part of the Kurdistan region or not, or to be an independent region by itself?" He further said, "The people of Kirkuk are free to decide their future, whether they want to be part of the KRG or an independent region or to join another region."

The UN is proposing four scenarios that might offer a middle path, though they're the ones Barzani broadly rejected in an earlier interview with The New York Times. Not yet public, they were described in a paper by the International Crisis Group last month. None would place Kirkuk into the KRG but one would allow for a special, autonomous status. Another would let it be run by the KRG and Baghdad together. On the ground, those would probably mean heavy Kurdish control. But the UN would like to work out the arrangements in negotiation with the Kurds and minority Arabs and Turkmen and then take it to the vote. The hope is that the public would ratify a signed-off deal, rather than something muscled through by the Kurdish majority that could bring resistance and violence later.

With NEWSWEEK, Barzani implied that the proposals were just "complicating the issue" and were aimed at keeping Kirkuk out of the KRG. But he is still working with the process.

The ICG offers other incentives, such as Baghdad giving Kurds greater rights to sell oil on their lands and letting other largely Kurdish areas fold into the KRG. They're all risky. In an opposing view, Iraq expert Reider Visser said that forcing such an overall deal could intensify ethnic animosities. Possible, but unresolved disputes in Iraq usually end up in violent outbursts or with one side brutally forcing the other to submit.

Barzani stressed that he would follow anything in accordance with the constitution, which could leave the door open to some kind of negotiated deal. Last weekend, he met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for the first time after months of acrimonious rhetoric. American officials are urging them to cooperate. Certainly, the situation is combustible, especially since no one expects a Kirkuk deal until after the Iraqi elections in January. But, for all the dire talk, it doesn't have to end badly.