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Disputistan - Resolving Injustice in Iraq


Kurdish Herald Feature - Vol. 1 Issue 3, July 2009


Collectively, the disputed areas in northern Iraq tell a story of injustice, a story of people being forced out of their homes for the crime of belonging to one ethnic group and not the other. For much of Iraq’s modern history, the places now known as the “disputed areas” were subjected to policies of Arabization, essentially meaning that the original residents, Kurds and Turkmens were forced to flee from their homes and Arab families were often paid to resettle there. The objective of the policies for those who carried out the injustices was the hope that the demographics of these areas would change, giving the central government, the Arabizing force, control over these strategic locations and, in many cases, the rich oil reserves lying deep below their soil.


The process of Arabization was intensified under the reign of the Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party (1968-2003), the darkest age in modern Iraq’s history, a time when much of Iraq became a mass grave beneath the ground and a concentration camp above it.


Angelo Lopez © Kurdish Herald 2009


Iraqi writer and professor Dr. Kanan Makiya once aptly described Saddam’s Iraq as a “Republic of Fear”; it was within that republic where an historic injustice was committed against the original inhabitants of Kerkuk and a number of other towns and villages stretching from just north of Baghdad all the way to the gates of Dohuk, not far from Iraq’s border with Turkey.


Following the removal of the Ba’athist regime, the issue of Disputistan became a topic of focus for the actors in Iraq’s new political system, and was immediately addressed through Article 58 of the Transitional Authority Law (TAL). Article 58 of the TAL mentions only the governorate of Kerkuk by name, but covers all of Iraqi locales which had been subjected to Arab nationalist and sectarian policies enacted by the previous regime.


In the Iraqi constitution which succeeded the TAL, Article 140 is dedicated to the issue of the disputed areas, with a specific reference to the text of Article 58 of the TAL. Article 140 gave the new Iraqi government a deadline to complete the implementation stage - 31 December 2007. Kerkuk and the remaining disputed areas were to be "normalized" by moving Arab settlers out of the regions and moving formerly displaced families back to their previous homes. A consensus, followed by a referendum, would then determine whether the areas would be incorporated into the Kurdistan Region. Today, well into mid-2009, these important steps have yet to take place.


Within the landscape of Kurdish politics (both pre- and post-regime change), few things are more important than the issue of Kerkuk and the other disputed areas. Thus, in 2005, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) established the Ministry of Extra Regional Affairs with the specific mandate of focusing on the disputed areas, and appointed Dr. Muhammad Ihsan to head this new ministry. In an interview with Kurdish Herald, Dr. Ihsan said that the single most important factor impeding the implementation of Article 140 is the lack of political will.


Policies stemming from Arab nationalism resulted in the displacement of people from their homes because of the fear that if a place like Kerkuk, which sits on 20% of Iraq’s known oil reserves and continues to have a Kurdish majority, is treated as part of Kurdistan, then the Kurds of Iraq could more easily separate from Iraq and form their own independent state. Indeed, that fear seems to persist to this very day. The people of Kerkuk and other Iraqis inside and outside of Kurdistan were led to believe that the removal of the Saddam regime would bring about a new set of ideals, that these new ideals would be part of a new order. This belief seems unfortunately unwarranted, as almost two years have based since the constitutional deadline for the implementation of Article 140, and no progress has been made.


Dr. Muhammad Ihsan’s ministry, which has relied on documents and recent surveys conducted by the ministry, believes that the number displaced from the disputed areas is approximately two million. However, Dr. Muhammad Ihsan insists that without a referendum and a census there is no adequate way to determine how many people were affected by the Ba’athist policies of Arabization and displacement. The Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens and other groups seem to all claim certain disputed areas to be theirs, and no public census has ever been conducted in these areas in recent times.


City of Kerkuk



The city center of Kerkuk is undoubtedly the most important of the disputed, areas as its mixed population is estimated to be approximately half a million. The Kurds say that Kerkuk is “the heart of Kurdistan”, while Iraq’s Turkmens see it as their cultural center in in Iraq. The Arabs, most of whom were resettled there for political purposes culminating in this crisis, believe that they have been there for too long to just pack up and go back to the homes of their fathers and grandfathers.


The KRG frequently claims that it has had an outstanding record of coexistence with non-Kurdish minorities within the current borders of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region. Kurdish authorities argue that the non-Kurds of Kerkuk would be treated no differently than the rest of non-Kurdish Kurdistanis (including indigenous Turkmen and non-Kurdish Christian populations) that are currently living within the administrative borders of Dohuk, Erbil and Sulaymaniyah.


In the center of Kerkuk, according to the Electoral Commission’s certified tallies, the 2005 election results yielded a strong victory for the Kurdish parties, with the Kurdistan Alliance list receiving 261,577 votes, which amounted to 67.8% of the total vote (not including the districts). The runner-up was the Iraqi Turkmen Front, which received 54,213 votes (14% of total), with the remainder going to various other slates, including Islamist Kurds.


The district of Dibis, with an estimated population of 40,000, sits on the northern tip of the governorate of Kerkuk, bordering KRG’s administrative capital, Erbil. 75% of the votes from Dibis were won by the Kurdistan Alliance during the December 2005 elections. Also within the administrative borders of the governorate of Kerkuk is the district of Daquq with an estimated population of 75,000 people. Daquq, like most of Kerkuk, is a mosaic consisting of Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and others groups. During the 2005 elections, the Kurdistan Alliance won a plurality of the votesin the region, capturing 37% of the total. On the other hand, in the district of al-Hawijah bordering the Salahadin governorate, where the Arab tribes of Jibour and al-‘Ubaid reside, the Kurdistan Alliance received less than a 1,000 votes (not even 1%). In the event that there is a full implementation of Article 140 and the referendum results show that the people of the governorate of Kerkuk choose to be included with the Kurdistan Regional Government, the people of al-Hawijah would become either remain an Arab minority within Iraqi Kurdistan or join Salahadin governorate, with the latter being more likely given ethnic tensions.


That is part of the legal principle behind Article 58 of the TAL and Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution – rearrangements of administrative borders ought to be addressed if need be. Indeed, the current borders are a function of previous adjustments made by the Iraqi central government to serve its chauvinistic agenda, and it only makes sense that they could now be reevaluated in an attempt to right the wrongs of the past, which would mean reevaluating the provincial assignments of places such as Makhmour (moved from Erbil to Mosul) and Akre (moved from Dohuk to Mosul). Additionally, outside Kurdistan, this could mean reevaluating the current size of the Karbala governorate, which was decreased by the previous regime, and that of the Anbar governorate, which was increased.


In Mosul, the demographics are even more mixed, with a number of large and small ethnic and religious communities comprising the ever-so-mixed region known as the Nineveh plains. A drive from Dohuk to Erbil will inevitably lead a traveler through part of this region and include some areas which are exclusively Kurdish and others including various groups such as the indigenous Shabak, Yezidi or Christian populations. The vast majority of the areas within this region are quite diverse. To some residents of the Ninevah plains who have seen the horrors inflicted by al-Qaeda and the neo-Ba’athists in the center of Mosul since 2003, the idea of being included within the relatively safe and prosperous Kurdistan Region may be an easy decision.


In Diyala, the districts of Kifri and Khaneqin and the sub-district of Mandali are comprised of mostly Kurds, Feyli (Shi’a) Kurds to be specific. Despite numerous terrorist attacks against them, the Feyli Kurds in this area still enjoy relative safety compared to the Feyli Kurds victimized during the most intense stages of the insurgency in Sunni majority areas north and west of Baghdad.



In Salahadin lies the district of Tuz Khurmatu, which has considerable Kurdish and Turkmen communities. Tikrit, the birthplace of the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, is located at the center of the Salahadin governorate. Saddam used the fact that it was his birthplace as a qualifier to turn the small town into a governorate and incorporated districts such as Tuz Khurmatu to become part of Salahadin.


Behind these names and numbers are shattered families that were once stripped of their right to remain in their ancestral homes. Thousands of families were displaced for purely chauvanistic and sectarian reasons, causing the new Iraqi political class an unenviable problem whose resolution seems to require more than a constitutional article. Indeed, Article 140 is a fair legal mechanism at resolving the issue of Disputistan and no new proposal can be more just or sensible than what is already outlined in the text of the Iraqi constitution.


Now, the new Iraq needs to commit to one of its primary purposes as a historical actor and focus on resolving the injustices of the previous regime.





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