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Kirkuk: Mad race for a 10bn-barrel prize

By Ian Urbina, Asia Times, 1 February 2003

[Kirkuk location]
There has been a lot of speculation about the potential for bloody house-to-house fighting that could ensue in Baghdad in the event of an American invasion. Over the past several weeks, many within Washington’s military circles have argued over whether the best approach would be to blitz the city with overwhelming force prefaced by heavy aerial bombing, or whether instead to encircle the city and strangle it into submission by way of tank-patrolled quarantine. Either scenario would likely entail severe civilian loss and dire humanitarian consequences, and both run the risk of a rash response from the most loyal of the Iraqi forces as they are backed into a corner.

However, in the short and long run Baghdad may not be the city of greatest unpredictability in any US campaign. One of the potentially hottest spots could be the northern oil-rich and historically controversial city of Kirkuk. Not only might this city witness a mad dash on the part of the Turks, the Americans and the Kurds, it could also face internal clashes as ethnic groups take the chance to settle old scores. This chaos could provide an opportune pretext for neighboring Turkey to step up its involvement, covertly or otherwise.

Part of the interest in Kirkuk is its oil. The city, located in northern Mosul province about 250 kilometers north of Baghdad near the foot of the Zagros Mountains, sits atop more than 10 billion barrels of proven reserves. One of the country’s two leading oil sites, the wells at Kirkuk currently produce up to 1 million barrels a day.

With these reserves comes a slate of concerns for the Pentagon. Clearly, military planners are extremely eager to ensure that when the dust settles no one other than the American forces have control of these wells. But their more immediate worry is the potential for catastrophic oil fires. The fear is that Iraqi troops may engage in a slash-and-burn approach in which they are instructed to detonate Iraqi rigs and set wells aflame.

Such actions would not be without precedent. In 1991, Saddam's forces set fire to 730 of Kuwait's approximately 1,000 oil wells as they retreated during the Gulf War after seizing Kuwait the previous year, causing a monumental economic, health and environmental disaster. These fires clouded over the tiny Gulf state for months, causing black rain to fall from the skies. Some wells spewed more than 60,000 barrels of crude per day, creating dozens of oil lakes in the desert. Such acts of sabotage would certainly, in part, be motivated by retribution. But they would also serve the tactical purpose, as they did in the 1991 war, of creating significant barriers for oncoming ground forces. Additionally, the black plumes make for a severe challenge to aircraft and satellite imaging on which the US forces depend for positioning.

Skeptics claim that such actions are unlikely and are being played up by Washington as preliminary justification for swift US seizure of all oil interests. Others point out that if Washington opts to invade, it will hardly need an excuse to seize these fields.

Intelligence reports out of Iran seem to indicate an increase in recent activity at these wells as Iraqi authorities last week dug trenches around Kirkuk's oil refinery. Evening working hours at the refinery have been removed to better control the traffic of people, and the Iraqi government has also begun cautioning residents of the city to stay indoors once and if the war breaks out. House-to-house inspections of suspicious citizens has increased recently as well.

But more than oil, it is history and demographics which make Kirkuk distinctly volatile. Often called Kurdish Jerusalem, the city is a symbol of Kurdish heritage which many, Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) among them, claim as historically Kurdish. One of the two main Kurdish political parties - the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) - which shares control of northern Iraq with the PUK in defiance of Baghdad, has made known their desire to have the city as the capital of any future Kurdish province. At the same time, both Kurdish parties have attempted to assuage US concerns by pledging that they are not interested in Kirkuk's prized oil fields and that they would leave them to be administered by the central government in Baghdad.

But Turkey also has its eyes set on Kirkuk, likewise laying historical claim to the city. According to Ankara, which last month announced it was revisiting old maps, Kirkuk belongs to Turkey because it was part of the Ottoman Empire, but in the aftermath of World War I, as the French and the British divided up the region, the city was stripped from the Turks. The Turkish military warns that any attempt by Iraqi Kurds to seize control of Kirkuk - as they did briefly during a 1991 uprising - will spark a strong reaction. Estimates of Turkish troops already in northern Iraq range from 12,000 to 20,000 troops.

Part of Turkey's interest in Kirkuk is surely financial. Its economy has been in dire straits for over a year and a war could cost Ankara upwards of US$28 billion. Turkey is also worried of political costs as they perceive that any move which strengthens Iraqi Kurds will inevitably embolden Turkey's own restive Kurds.

Kirkuk is also home to a large ethnic Turkmen population over which Ankara keeps a close and protective watch. During the past 50 years area Turkomen and Kurdish populations have seen repeated clashes. In 1959, for example, poorer and communist-aligned Kurds rioted in Kirkuk rampaging against the city's more prosperous Turkomen. The three-day blood-letting was only halted when Baghdad intervened militarily. In 1996, one of the two major Kurdish parties (in a brief rapprochement with Baghdad) invited the Iraqi military into the Northern city of Irbil, near Kirkuk, and Saddam's forces executed 17 Turkmen activists and officials, capturing 20 other. Iraqi Turkomen blame this event on the Kurds. There have been additional flare-ups between the two ethnicities in 1998 and 2000.

Adding to the ethnic tensions between the city’s Turkomen and Kurdish populations has been the Ba'ath policy of Arabization, in which Saddam has attempted to undermine the claims of Kurds, Turkomen and other minorities to the prized lands by forcefully expelling them and moving tens of thousands of ethnic Arabs into the region. Between 120,000 and 200,000 Kurds, as well as Turkomen and Assyrians, have been expelled from Kirkuk since 1991, according to UN officials and a recent Human Rights Watch report. Tens of thousands were forced out in earlier decades, the bulk of whom are now living in squalid camps in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.

If and when a US invasion begins, many of these refugees and displaced villages could attempt to return home.

Determining what constituency demographically holds the upper hand is difficult to ascertain. The 1957 census - the sole reliable count in Iraq and the only one in which Iraqis were allowed to declare their mother tongue - placed Turkmen as the region's third-largest ethnic group, after Arabs and Kurds. But more recent and reliable numbers are not available, especially due to the massive dislocation which has occurred since the war in 1991. Adjudicating the competing claims for these lands will also be a messy process, and the longer these matters are left unresolved, the more explosive they could become. This is especially true in light of the fact that of the roughly 50,000 armed Kurdish fighters aligned with one of the two dominant Kurdish parties, the vast majority have direct familial ties to Kirkuk.

War planners and humanitarian organizations will surely want to keep a close eye on Kirkuk as events unfold. Though there has been practically no public comment from Washington about plans for dealing with complicated situations such as Kirkuk, one can only hope that such deliberations are in process. Overlooking the real risk of oil-fire sabotage, one senior US official recently quoted in the Los Angeles Times got it at least half right in predicting, Taking Baghdad will determine the outcome of the war. Sorting out Kirkuk will determine what happens afterward.