Why is the Iraqi city of Kirkuk so important?

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“I risked my life and my family’s life to vote and all I got was this lousy purple finger.”

That’s what a lot of Iraqis are telling themselves right now (though probably not in those exact words). It’s been nearly seven weeks since Iraqis risked their butts to vote in the country’s first post-Saddam Hussein election. But they still don’t have a government. The reason is that Iraq is parliamentary.

Hey, Andisheh, by “parliamentary” do you mean: “of or relating to George Clinton’s legendary free-form funk collective; the group responsible for unforgettable funk classics like ‘Supergroovalisticprosifunkstication,’ ‘Gloryhallastoopid (Pin the Tail on the Funky)’ and many, many more?”

No, but that’s a superb guess.

By parliamentary, I mean a governmental system akin to the ones used in Europe and Canada, where voters elect a parliament and the parliament then selects a prime minister and cabinet to go about the country’s administrative business. Iraqis have voted to fill the 275-person national legislature, but the members of the legislature are still arguing over who’s going to fill the country’s top posts.

Unlike a lot of parliamentary democracies, where a simple majority of the parliament is needed to get things done, Iraq’s current constitution requires a two-thirds majority to select a government. The two-thirds rule is meant to force the majority, a predominantly Shi’ite political group known as the United Iraqi Alliance, to compromise as much as possible with Sunni Arabs and Kurds.

Iraq’s Kurds currently have enough votes in the parliament to block the formation of a national government. And they likely won’t stop blocking the formation of a national government until they get important concessions from the UIA.

The issue that’s dearest to the Kurds, and therefore the one that’s holding up the formation of an Iraqi government, revolves around Kirkuk. Kirkuk is a city of about 700,000 people in northern Iraq. Kurds consider Kirkuk to be a Kurdish city. Kurdish leaders often liken Kirkuk to Jerusalem, meaning it’s a spiritual and symbolic capital.

The problem is that, though it may very well be their spiritual capital, Kirkuk is not at the moment the Kurds’ physical capital. It’s not even in Iraq’s Kurdish territory. Kirkuk is just outside Iraqi Kurdistan, aka the predominantly Kurdish part of northern Iraq that has been largely self-governing since 1991.

The Kurds want to redraw the territories’ lines so that Kirkuk is in their territory. They say it belongs to them. Their claim is not definitive, but it is legitimate. It’s not entirely clear whether Kirkuk was ever a majority-Kurdish city, but before Saddam Hussein, Kurds at the very least comprised a plurality of Kirkuk.

During his rule, Hussein de-Kurded Kirkuk by forcibly removing the Kurdish people and importing Arabs. He did this because he wanted the region’s lucrative oil industry to be firmly in the hands of Saddam-loyal Sunnis. He also wanted Kirkuk to serve as a geographic buffer between the Sunni heartland and Kurdistan. Hussein banned the Kurdish language in Kirkuk and even banned Kurds who remained there from building or even fixing up their homes.

With Hussein now gone, the Kurds want to remove the most recently imported Arabs and bring back the deported Kurds. If and when that happens, Kurdish leaders are confident that Kirkuk will be solidly, majority Kurd.

The current Kurdish demand that Kirkuk be given to Kurdistan before a government can be formed is just a bargaining position. It’s unlikely at this point that the UIA is going to say, “Go ahead and take it.” The Kurds are instead luring the Shi’ites into a long-term, Kurd-friendly compromise.

The Kurdish position is that the Shi’ite UIA should reaffirm its commitment to the Transitional Administrative Law, the U.S.-imposed rule requiring a two-thirds majority for the new parliament to enact anything major. An article of the very same law says that Kirkuk’s status will be settled by a local referendum, but only after the people whom Hussein displaced (namely, the Kurds) are returned to their homes.

In plain English, then, Kirkuk and its surrounding province, Tamim, will soon be repopulated by Kurds - who will be allowed to vote on whether Kirkuk will become part of autonomous Kurdistan.