Despite warnings to postpone or cancel from the United States, the federal Iraqi government in Baghdad, Turkey, and others, the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), is barreling ahead with its independence referendum scheduled for September 25th. One of the key questions for the long-awaited vote is whether it would include disputed territories under Kurdish Peshmerga control that are not formally within the boundaries of the official Kurdistan region. Now, local government councils appear to be answering that question, as Reuters reports:
Iraq’s oil-producing region of Kirkuk will vote in a referendum on Kurdish independence on Sept. 25, its provisional council decided on Tuesday, a move that could increase tension with Arab and Turkmen residents. [….]
Only 24 of the 41 council members attended Tuesday’s vote, with 23 voting in favor of participating in the referendum. One abstained.
The remaining council members – all Arabs and Turkmen – boycotted the vote. Instead, they issued statements denouncing the vote as “unconstitutional.”
The vote appears to have followed strict ethnic lines, with 23 of the council’s 26 Kurdish members voting yes and the remaining nine Turkmen and six Arab council members abstaining. Whether that voting composition is ethnically representative of Kirkuk province is probably impossible to say and is a hugely controversial issue to begin with. Under Saddam, Kirkuk was subject to an “Arabization” program of ethnic cleansing directed at Kurds, Turkmen and Assyrians alike. Iraq’s last official census was conducted in 1957, but the two censuses conducted during independence as well those conducted by the British are disputed, given that they were used in part to support the legitimacy of the Sunni Arab Hashemite monarchy. Widely reproduced maps of the province’s ethno-sectarian composition, like Columbia University’s Gulf/2000 Project map “Kirkuk and Environs: Ethnic Composition, 2014,” include citations going back to the Ottoman era, which is probably the last time reliable data on the question was collected. Given the back and forth refugee flows since ISIS’ advances in 2014, it’s impossible to say what the composition of the province’s council “ought” to be, but Baghdad’s objections about the legitimacy of the vote have merit.
That being said, the real concern isn’t about a legitimate democratic process or whether Kirkuk’s Arabs and Turkmen are being properly represented. It’s about oil money. While the official Kurdistan region is itself oil-rich, Kirkuk’s oil fields and refineries would be an enormous boon for an independent Kurdistan and a major loss for the cash-strapped government in Baghdad. While oil production in Kirkuk virtually stopped after the rise of ISIS, and oil revenue has collapsed from low prices, large-scale production has resumed in the past year or so. Last year, a deal between the KRG and Baghdad resulted in a 50/50 revenue split for all of Kirkuk’s oil. That deal is likely to end, one way or the other, after Kurdish independence.
While Turkey opposes the KRG independence vote, the news that Kirkuk will be included in the vote will be of some solace. Although revenue from Kirkuk’s oil is currently split between the KRG and Baghdad, the hundreds of thousands of barrels produced from the province each day are shipped north through the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline to Turkey. While the federal Iraqi government does the same for now, they have long threatened and pursued efforts to instead ship Kirkuk’s oil via Iran. An independent Iraqi Kurdistan that excluded Kirkuk would almost certainly see the end of the revenue sharing agreement and would make exporting Kirkuk’s oil via another route a critical issue for Baghdad, and a significant loss for Turkey.
The KRG is playing a high-stakes game. While continued oil flows might be a salve for Turkey, the leader of Turkey’s far-right nationalist party recently described the independence vote as a potential act of war, a claim which had to be walked back by Turkey’s foreign minister. By including Kirkuk in the referendum, Baghdad may decide that it has no choice but to seize the oil fields by force. While the U.S. strongly backs the KRG, the Administration is urging a delay in the independence vote, a warning which the KRG ignores at its own risk. After all, the KRG remains reliant on U.S. military aid which may now be in jeopardy. Just as in eastern Syria, the fall of ISIS in northern Iraq may simply eliminate a common enemy but lead to a wider conflict between stronger regional powers.