Reviving UN Mediation on Iraq’s Disputed Internal Boundaries

Iraqi Peshmerga fighters (Wikimedia Commons)

by International Crisis Group

Amid the Middle East’s violent upheavals, Iraq has finally navigated to calmer waters. While Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) remnants continue to trouble rural areas north of Baghdad, the group has largely been defeated and dispersed from its territorial strongholds. Despite a low participation rate and multiple claims of fraud, parliamentary elections in May produced the beginnings of a new government five months later. The Kurdish region also held elections and a government there is likewise in formation. The new administrations in Baghdad and Erbil and the appointment of a new special representative of the UN secretary-general for Iraq provide an opening to move boldly on one of Iraq’s most enduring and divisive issues: the status of disputed territories and the determination of the Kurdish region’s borders. The UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), which conducted a comprehensive study of the disputed districts in 2008-2009 as a stepping stone toward eventual negotiations, is best placed to lead a fresh initiative toward a political settlement on the disputed territories consistent with the Iraqi constitution.

The conflict encompasses an area with a rich blend of ethnic and religious communities, but what lies underneath also matters: vast oil and gas deposits, including Iraq’s first discovered oilfield, in and around the city of Kirkuk. The Kurds, who lay claim to Kirkuk and other disputed territories given their large Kurdish population, want to annex these areas to the Kurdish region. Successive governments in Baghdad have strongly resisted this, aware that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) could use Kirkuk’s oil to finance a viable independent Kurdish state. The conflict could therefore become one over the territorial integrity of Iraq.

It need not be. Regardless of the Kurdish region’s final political status, given its designation in the Iraqi constitution as a federal region it must have an agreed-upon internal boundary with the rest of Iraq. As long as Baghdad and Erbil can find a formula for sharing Iraq’s oil revenues, including those deriving from Kirkuk, that boundary’s location becomes less politically sensitive. Indeed, in its study on the disputed territories UNAMI discovered that many people in these areas would prefer an “in-between” status for these districts that would preserve their diversity and intercommunal harmony. This would require a series of local power-sharing and joint security arrangements, as well as an overall revenue-sharing deal between the federal government and the KRG.

Domestically, support for a renewed attempt at settling the boundary question is growing. Iraq’s new president, Barham Salih, has signalled his intent to address the matter, and parliamentarians with Muqtada Sadr’s winning Sairoun list have visited the Kurdish region to initiate discussions. They will need outside support.

The regional environment is also conducive to this effort. When the Iraqi army retook the disputed territories from Kurdish forces in October 2017, the federal government had the support of Iran, Turkey, European states and the U.S., all of which had publicly warned the KRG not to proceed with a Kurdish independence referendum the previous month, viewing it as a step toward Iraq’s breakup. Their support for Iraq’s territorial integrity has translated in the past into support for efforts to bring Baghdad and Erbil to the table on the disputed territories question, and should do so again.

In assuming this task, the incoming UNAMI chief, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, should start by testing the political waters, increasing staff dedicated to the issue and developing a strategy for addressing it. In the meantime, the UN should help defuse the fallout between Baghdad and Erbil from the independence referendum, when the federal government and Iran took punitive measures against the Kurdish region by banning international flights and blocking Kirkuk oil from flowing through the Kurdish pipeline to Turkey. The government has reversed some of these measures, but talks on remaining ones are ongoing and the UN can shepherd them to a successful conclusion. Next, UNAMI should start negotiations focusing on “low-hanging fruit”, such as joint security mechanisms in the disputed territories that would prevent ISIS from exploiting security gaps between contending military actors. Ultimately, UNAMI should focus the two sides on the big questions: revenue sharing (not discussed in this report) and the status of the disputed territories.

The alternative is letting the issue linger and hoping that it does not turn violent again. Yet the Kurdish aspiration to incorporate the disputed territories into the Kurdish region is undiminished, as is Baghdad’s determination not to give them up. Another violent spasm is just a matter of time, as predictable as the swing of a pendulum. Negotiating a political settlement is a sensible move now that the local and international environments are both conducive to a new UN-led initiative.

Republished, with permission, from the International Crisis Group. This is an executive summary–you can read the full report here.

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