On the Record

Disputed Territories in Iraq

Roberta Cohen

Peshawa Abdulkhaliq Muhammed: What are the main obstacles to implementation of the Iraq Constitution especially those articles related to the territorial disputes?[*]

Roberta Cohen: To begin with, the articles in the Constitution are not that clear. Areas considered to be historically Kurdish, the “disputed territories,” are not defined, so ambiguity exists, other than in Kirkuk, about where referendums should be held to determine whether the areas should join the Kurdish region. The vagueness in the language also has allowed debate to develop over whether the referendums should focus exclusively on disputed areas joining the Kurdish region or on “other” options as well, such as a special status for Kirkuk. Voter eligibility is also not clear when it comes to Kurds and others who were not former residents of the Kirkuk area but who moved there since 2003.

The slowness in carrying out the measures required by the Constitution before referendums can be held has also impeded implementation. Such measures include the holding of a census, the relocation of Arab settlers, the return of Kurdish residents and compensation mechanisms for lost property.

Fundamentally, it is opposition to Kurdish control over oil-rich Kirkuk that is holding up implementation. It is generally believed that if a referendum were to be held in Kirkuk, the vote would favor joining the Kurdish region. But many Arab Shi’a, Arab Sunnis and Turkmen fear that an enlarged and economically strong Kurdistan will threaten the unity of the Iraqi state. Even when Kurdish leaders make clear that they are committed to a unified Iraq, and will work out agreements over oil revenues, Kurdish dominance is still feared, especially by the government of Turkey which is concerned about the impact on its own Kurdish population of a more powerful Kurdistan. As a result, tensions and violence have arisen which have interfered with the holding of referendums, and led to proposals for alternative strategies to preserve the peace.

Peshawa Abdulkhaliq Muhammed: How do you see the future of the disputed territories in Iraq which have led to internal displacement in this country, and what is the best way to solve the problem?

Roberta Cohen: Saddam Hussein’s Arabization campaign — which deliberately forced from Kirkuk and its surrounding areas more than one hundred thousand Kurds as well as Turkmen and Assyrians — was a profound injustice that needs to be addressed. The main question is how to achieve this goal peacefully without committing additional injustices.

Several steps are needed. The first is a census to determine the composition of the population in disputed areas. If it can be organized by the UN without violence this would help determine what kind of rule would be the most appropriate in different areas. The last census in Iraq was in 1957. Second, population transfers must be handled with great care. They must be voluntary, not forced, must accord with the human rights of those affected, and ensure that liabilities such as unemployment, homelessness and poverty for those who move are addressed. Third, laws and institutional arrangements are essential to protect the rights of minorities in contested areas. Minorities must be well represented in local governments with their views heeded and interests taken into account. Otherwise, tensions, instability and violence can erupt, including alliances with outside groups to intercede. If on the other hand minority groups are well protected, acceptance of majority rule on a de facto basis may be more likely. Fourth, effective property restitution or compensation mechanisms must be established, under the direction of international organizations which have experience in this area. If well designed, implemented and enforced, property mechanisms can resolve disputes and enable people whose property can not be restored to earn the means for reintegration elsewhere. Finally, there must be openness to political solutions other than referendums in disputed areas. A UN led process, involving the Kurdish Regional Government, the central government, local communities and the government of Turkey might be the more effective way of reaching an equitable and lasting power sharing arrangement in contested areas.

Peshawa Abdulkhaliq Muhammed: Should the Kurds have taken control of Kirkuk by using force in 2003 rather than agreeing to the vague referendum?

Roberta Cohen: Although it may be tempting to look back and wonder whether the Kurds should have taken control of Kirkuk and other areas by force, territory taken by force in an area of competing claims is not a sustainable solution. It will be followed, sooner or later, by measures to reverse that action, including military force.

Peshawa Abdulkhaliq Muhammed: Does the US play any role in determining the future of Kirkuk, whether to be part of KRG or Iraqi Central Government? Why?

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Roberta Cohen: United States influence over political developments in Iraq is diminishing as it draws down its troops and supports Iraq’s running its own country in its own way. The extent to which the US will try to influence the future of Kirkuk is unclear. On the one hand, the US is indebted to the Kurds for their support in the war against Saddam Hussein and during the insurgency and the sectarian violence. On the other hand, the US has strong interests in seeing a stable and unified Iraq which could mean that its solution for Kirkuk would not necessarily be the one for which the Kurds would wish. For the US, an agreed upon political solution is essential.

Peshawa Abdulkhaliq Muhammed: How do you assess the role of the UN in finding an agreed solution to the disputed territories in Iraq?

Roberta Cohen: The UN’s role in Iraq, especially in Kurdistan, has not always been trusted, given the sanctions regime and the oil for food scandals. However, the UN has a mandate to help Iraqis find a political solution to the disputed territories and has experience and skills in carrying out such assignments in different parts of the world. It has the capacity to broker a solution to Iraq’s disputed territories by acting as a neutral force in a highly charged atmosphere and work with the different parties to achieve solutions. It is also equipped to work at the regional and international levels, since the problem in Iraq also involves neighboring states like Turkey, Syria and Iran, and international interests, especially in Iraq’s oil production and development.

Peshawa Abdulkhaliq Muhammed: What is your message for the Kurdish leadership with regard to territorial disputes and managing ethnic conflict in Iraq?


Roberta Cohen: In the 2000 millennium report of the UN Secretary-General, there is a line worth recalling: “Every group needs to become convinced that the state belongs to all people.”

For too long in Iraq, Kurds and the Shi’a did not feel an integral and accepted part of the state. Many were dispossessed and abandoned by the national authorities and their political and economic interests violated by the institutions of their government. Reversing such imbalances and injustices, however, must be done without perpetrating injustices on other groups. In short, in order to avoid violence and achieve reconciliation, dialogue and compromise are needed followed by the preparation of one’s people to accept compromise. Kurdistan, it must always be remembered, is in a “tough neighborhood.” Coming to terms with the Shi’a dominated Maliki government over oil revenues and territory, with local ethnic and religious groups over property and governance, and with neighboring Turkey over the PKK is a matter of realism and political maturity. Policies that unite Shi’a, Sunni, Turkmen and minorities against the Kurds will not bode well for Kurdistan or Iraq.

*Original Title: Interview of Roberta Cohen by Peshawa Abdulkhaliq Muhammed from Kurdistani Nwe, a Kurdish daily newspaper published by the PUK in Iraqi Kurdistan January 4, 2009.