USIP’s Sean Kane discusses his new report "Iraq's Disputed Territories: A View of the Political Horizon and Implications for U.S. Policy.”

April 18, 2011

USIP’s Sean Kane discusses his new report "Iraq's Disputed Territories: A View of the Political Horizon and Implications for U.S. Policy.” Attend a public event and panel discussion on the report on April 25.

What were the report’s main findings regarding what an Iraqi-negotiated solution to the status of Kirkuk and other disputed territories might look like? How have these been received?

Any resolution to the status of Kirkuk and other disputed territories will have to be fully developed and owned by Iraqis, but the current discussion has struggled to move beyond Kurdish existential concerns and the fears of other Iraqis about what changes to the status of Kirkuk will mean for the country’s unity. The report tries to make the discussion more practical by using local election results since 2005 and Iraqi archival records since the 1920s as the basis for concretely sketching what an Iraqi-negotiated solution to the disputed territories might look like.

The report’s examination of these two data sets finds support for Kurdish claims to some districts and sub-districts in Ninewa and Diyala provinces, but less than what is claimed in the draft constitution of the Kurdistan Region. It also suggests two models for the province of Kirkuk where there is neither a clear winner nor loser. The first is an interim special governorate status for Kirkuk where both Baghdad and Erbil could potentially play a role in administering the province.

The second is a possible re-districting of Kirkuk, where the heavily Kurdish northern sub-districts could become administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government, the remaining sub-districts would remain administered by the federal government, and Kirkuk town could become a common city.

More broadly, the report suggests that creating the political will in Baghdad to open talks on the disputed territories will likely require the simultaneous consideration of steps to reinforce the viability and territorial integrity of Iraq (for example establishing an automatic national oil revenue sharing system and possible constitutional amendments).

Some early reactions to the report’s findings from senior Arab, Kurdish and Turkoman officials, at both the national level and in Kirkuk, can be found here: http://www.usip.org/publications/iraqs-disputed-territories#Commentary.

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Timing can be a critical factor in the success or failure of negotiations. Is there anything about the current situation in Iraq that makes you feel negotiations on the disputed territories are particularly urgent?

Most Iraqis will say that the interlocking issues raised by Kirkuk and other disputed territories have been a problem for decades and will be difficult to fully resolve in the near term. Nevertheless, the immediate cause for concern is the scheduled withdrawal of what are effectively U.S. peacekeepers from these areas at the end of this summer. At the same time, there is no universally accepted political or constitutional process to address the status of Kirkuk, raising the chances that the parties will take matters into their own hands on the ground. We may have seen a preview of this last month, when an apparently unannounced southward movement of Kurdish peshmerga troops in Kirkuk sharply raised local tensions with Arab and Turkoman communities.

In this environment, it is important that a genuine negotiating process be started now. Realistically, such talks are unlikely to generate major immediate outcomes, but the critical step is the establishment of a political pressure release valve ahead of the U.S. military withdrawal. Without this in place, there is an increased risk that the Iraqi Army or peshmerga will be used in the future to stake out competing territorial claims -- with all the potential for miscalculation that this implies.

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What are the implications of the report for U.S. policymakers? How can the U.S. government support Iraqi negotiations on these difficult and sensitive issues?

The United States government has described a strategic American interest in an Iraq that is sovereign, stable, self-reliant and can contribute to peace and security in the Middle East. Kirkuk and the wider set of Arab-Kurdish political disputes already hinder the realization of these goals by vastly complicating Iraqi efforts to get on with the vital process of rebuilding their country. In the absolute worst case scenario, the fall-out from an actual military confrontation in Kirkuk could submarine the enormously costly American investment in Iraq since 2003.

Given the strategic American interests at stake, the U.S. government should correspondingly be prepared to undertake a strategic-level initiative with the new Iraqi government to explore whether the space can be created to launch a robust negotiating process on the disputed territories. This could include incentivizing Baghdad and Erbil to take part in talks by conditioning sought after American diplomatic and security assistance on Iraqis demonstrating a willingness to start a process to address a core political driver of instability in their country. Likewise, it should be made clear that an attempt by any side to impose a unilateral solution in Kirkuk or elsewhere will trigger a review of American security and aid assistance to the offending party.

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