Kirkuk: Prospects for a Turkey-Shiite alliance?

Kirkuk: Prospects for a Turkey-Shiite alliance?

One week ago, Kirkuk Governor Najmiddin Karim took the initiative to raise the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) flag alongside the Iraqi flag on public buildings in Kirkuk. A referendum decision on Kirkuk’s future followed his provocative action, and tensions persist despite the recent decision of the Iraqi parliament to reverse this decision. 
Amid KRG President Massoud Barzani’s voicing of his intention to hold an independence referendum at the “earliest time,” the status of the Kirkuk province suddenly became controversial. 

Along with Iraqi Arabs and Turkmens, Turkey officially communicated its concern about these recent events and declarations. Turkish presidential spokesperson İbrahim Kalın warned Barzani against an eventual referendum, while Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım stressed the importance of Kirkuk’s plural composition and its attachment to Iraq. Meanwhile nationalist protests erupted in Turkey, especially in front of the Iraqi Embassy in Ankara, with protesters holding signs reading “Kirkuk is Turkish and will remain so forever.”

However, it is important to note that the main opposition against Kurdish flags in Kirkuk has come mainly from Iraqi Shiites. Indeed, Kirkuk’s abundant oil resources make it a key strategic and economic city. 

In August 2016, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr made a strong statement about disputes over Kirkuk, stressing that Kirkuk is for “all Iraqis” and saying its annexation to the KRG is “impossible.” More recently and in a similar fashion, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi emphasized that Kirkuk is “for all the people of Kirkuk with all its communities,” adding that “Kirkuk is not a part of the Kurdistan region and Iraq’s laws apply there.” 

Everybody knows that al-Abadi has little capacity to resist demands from the United States. As a result, one may expect him to conduct a “U-turn” if the U.S. backs Kirkuk’s attachment to a future independent Kurdistan. However, al-Sadr – the bête noire of the Americans - is certainly capable of blocking such an attempt, as most recently demonstrated by the Green Zone protests. 

Al-Sadr is widely known not only as a powerful Shiite cleric, he is also a convinced Iraqi nationalist. He openly contests sectarianism and advocates a unified Iraq. In an interview he gave in August 2016, al-Sadr stressed that the Kurds are Iraq’s partners and said he hoped they would not secede from Iraq.

In October 2016, when Turkish-Iraqi bilateral relations were going through tension over the Turkish military presence in Bashiqa, the first Iraqi who posed a serious threat to Turkey was al-Sadr. “Withdraw your troops from Bashiqa with honor before you are kicked out by force,” he said at the time. Today, however, Turkey and important segments of Iraqi Shiites share at least two common interests: Preserving Kirkuk’s present status and defending the territorial integrity of Iraq. 

Despite numerous critical confrontations, Turkey has managed to successfully revive its ties with Russia. Perhaps the time has now come to initiate dialogue with the Shiites, starting in neighboring Iraq.