Officials and residents in Kirkuk, a nothern city in Iraq, are concerned about the eruption of ethnic hostilities after American troops withdraw from the country at the end of the year.
According to the State Department website, “two bilateral agreements between the United States and the Government of Iraq” took effect in January 2009, which governed “the presence and status of U.S. forces in Iraq” and addressed “the withdrawal of these forces”.
Although these treaties also set out a “variety of areas and aims for bilateral cooperation”, Iraqi and Kurdish security forces will be responsible for maintaining order in the country following the withdrawal of American military personnel. Many are worried that these forces will be unable to keep the peace in the semi-autonomous province of Kurdistan however.
According to a report from Reuters, “U.S. military officials long ago marked the city as a likely flash-point for future conflict.”
The city is home to a large percentage of Kurds living in Iraq. Kirkuk is of great symbolic importance for the Kurdish population. It was also a major site of Saddam Hussein’s brutal treatment of the ethnic group.
To this day however, there is continued contention between the Iraqi central government and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) over who is responsible for the security of the region.
According to Reuters,
“While Kurdistan says it has historic rights to the city, Kirkuk is officially outside the three northern provinces that comprise the region. Iraqi security forces, and not the Kurdish peshmurga army, have the responsibility to protect it.”
Kirkuk is a point of contention between the two governments for another reason: oil.
According to the Reuters report, “even those who are fully behind the American withdrawal fear potential problems in Kirkuk, which sits atop some of the world’s biggest oil reserves.” The region produces nearly a quarter of Iraq’s oil output. American companies have begun taking more of an interest in the northern province, including Chevron and Shell.
In a report yesterday from Financial Times however, it was stated that Iraq’s central government has little interest in allowing American companies access to the region. According to the report, “the central government in Baghdad is seeking to impose a de facto ban on companies operating in Kurdistan.”
As Baghdad has considerable influence over which companies are granted contracts, Royal Dutch Shell did not want to risk other projects and “pulled out of oil development talks with the Kurdistan regional government in an an effort to protect lucrative investments in southern Iraq, including a potential $17bn natural gas deal.”
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta defended President Barack Obama’s decision to withdraw American troops from Iraq to the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this week. According to Bloomberg, Panetta stated that “Iraq is an emerging democracy” that “is able to address it’s own security needs.” Of greatest concern to political officials in both the United States and Iraq is the return of extremism, as well as Iranian attempts to influence events in the region.
Conflict between the two governments within the state itself may also require the attention of policymakers in the months to come.