Following decades of historical dispute and bloodshed over the identity of Kirkuk, the oil-rich city of northern Iraq, the province could become an autonomous region inside Iraq, despite ongoing legal and political obstacles. Successive Iraqi governments, as well as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), have brought the city and its people to the brink of total ruin through their dissonance and mismanagement of the province, thus sparking renewed calls for autonomy.

Iraq’s permanent constitution of 2005 describes Kirkuk – home to Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Christians, and other minorities – as a disputed area under jurisdiction of the Iraqi federal government and the Kurdistan region, a federal region within Iraq.

According to Article 140 of the constitution, whether the city and its surrounding districts should be considered part of Iraq or only part of the Kurdistan region should have been decided by December 31, 2007. But political discord between Iraqi and Kurdish authorities has made the implementation of the Article nearly impossible so far.

“Many years of frustration followed, as a succession of Iraqi governments expressed support for Article 140 but, exploiting the vagueness of terms such as ‘normalization,’ ‘census,’ and ‘referendum,’ failed to implement it,” reads a December 2018 report by the International Crisis Group.

“The constitution’s December 2007 deadline for this process passed without significant progress. All the same, Baghdad’s weakness after 2003 allowed the Kurdish parties and their militias to exercise near-total political and security control over the disputed territories, Kirkuk included, for [14] years.”

“An Opportunity for Salvation”

Frustrated by waiting for the implementation of Article 140, a group of activists, public figures, and law experts from all areas of Kirkuk, who deemed themselves the Independent Committee for Making Kirkuk an Autonomous Region, announced a plan to turn the city into an autonomous region in December 2020.

Latif Fatih Faraj, journalist and board member of the committee, told Inside Arabia: “The plan for turning Kirkuk into an autonomous region according to Articles 116 and 119 of Iraq’s constitution is an opportunity for Kirkuk’s salvation from the current stalemate.”

“While it is rich in oil reserves, fertile agricultural lands, as well as historic locations, it has high unemployment rates and pollution issues.”

“Kirkuk lacks basic services and strategic projects. While it is rich in oil reserves, fertile agricultural lands, as well as historic locations, it has high unemployment rates and pollution issues,” Faraj added.

Articles 111-119 of the Iraqi constitution indicate how provinces can become autonomous regions within Iraq.

“One or more governorates shall have the right to organize into a region based on a request to be voted on in a referendum submitted in one of the following two methods: First, a request by one-third of the council members of each governorate intending to form a region. Second, a request by one-tenth of the voters in each of the governorates intending to form a region,” reads Article 119 of the constitution.

No Political Support

As soon as the committee announced their plan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – the two main ruling parties in the Kurdistan region – rejected the move to make Kirkuk an autonomous region. Both parties still favor the implementation of Article 140, with a hope that one day the people of Kirkuk will unanimously vote to become part of the Kurdistan region.

The Turkmens, who previously worked with Turkey to establish Kirkuk as a “separate region,” no longer support this view, according to a recent report published by Kirkuknow. The Arabs are also against the plan for Kirkuk joining the autonomous region, citing they do not support “the separation” of Kirkuk.

To move their initiative forward, the Independent Committee for Making Kirkuk an Autonomous Region first must collect sufficient signatures from Kirkuk residents and later hold a referendum to vote on whether the province should become an autonomous region or not, as per Article 119, and Article 13 – ratified by the Iraqi Parliament in 2018 – of the constitution. However, opponents of such a move can and might void such actions through raising legal complaints to the Supreme Federal Court of Iraq.

In the past few years, some Iraqi politicians argued that Article 140 has expired as it passed its implementation deadline. Yet the Supreme Federal Court of Iraq ruled in July 2019 that the article should remain in effect until the implementation of its provisions.

Faraj clarified that the committee’s plan is not contrary to the Article 140 provisions but admitted that their project has not being finalized yet and needs more time in order to mobilize all the communities of Kirkuk.

Further Calls for Autonomy

To date, three Iraqi provinces – Basra, Neineveh, and Dhi Qar – have called for making their provinces federal regions according to the constitution, complaining of the federal government’s heavy control over their decisions and resources. Likewise, a group of independent citizens recently called for making Sulaimaniyah province an autonomous region within the Kurdistan region.

But such thorny calls have received backlash by officials in Baghdad and Erbil, and are often the subject of foreign and regional interferences.

Basra – the oil-rich southern province, home to Iraq’s only port on the Arabian Sea and 80 percent of Iraq’s oil output – has been vying to become a federal region for a decade. The province’s demand has been neglected by Iraq’s federal government though, as it fears losing the main lifeline feeding the Iraqi economy.

Basra’s bid for autonomy has also been marred by competition among regional rivals.

Basra’s bid for autonomy has also been marred by competition among regional rivals.

“Even if Basra becomes a federal region, it would not have similar powers to the Kurdistan region; and Basra would be under the threat of take over and division by Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait,” Tariq Harb, an Iraqi veteran law expert, warned on his Facebook account on January 29.

The dark scenario of Basra being swallowed up by neighboring countries could be repeated by Turkey and Iran if Kirkuk, Nineveh, and even Sulaimaniyah become autonomous regions. Both countries have historic interest in occupying the three provinces, which are rich in oil, gas, and other natural resources.

Biden’s Iraqi Decentralization Plan 

US President Joe Biden in 2006 co-proposed a plan to divide Iraq into three federal regions: a Shia region in the south, a Sunni region in the west, and a Kurdish region in the north of Iraq.

“The idea, as in Bosnia, is to maintain a united Iraq by decentralizing it, giving each ethno-religious group — Kurd, Sunni Arab and Shiite Arab — room to run its own affairs, while leaving the central government in charge of common interests,” Biden and Leslie H. Gelb wrote in an opinion piece published by the New York Times in 2006.

Will Biden, as the US president, readopt the partition plan for Iraq?

Biden, then head of the US Senate Foreign Relations Commission, presented the project to divide Iraq into three federal regions on sectarian and ethnic lines to Congress and the non-binding plan was approved in September 2007. Now, the key question is: Will Biden, as the US president, readopt the partition plan for Iraq?

“The future for the Three Territories project is still open to all possibilities,” Eslam Abdelmagid Eid wrote in an analysis of the plan’s current status, published by the World Geostrategic Insight in November 2020.

Nevertheless, amid all the internal Iraqi conflicts, regional and international interference in Iraq – among Kurds in particular, and the uncertainty of a US foreign policy stance, it will not be an easy task to turn Kirkuk – once described as a “powder keg” by James A. Baker and Lee H. Hamilton in an Iraq Study Group Report – into an autonomous region within Iraq.



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