Cover: Resolving Kirkuk

Resolving Kirkuk

Lessons Learned from Settlements of Earlier Ethno-Territorial Conflicts

Published May 9, 2012

by Larry Hanauer, Laurel E. Miller


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التسوية في كركوك: الدروس المستفادة من مستوطنات الصراعات العرقية والإقليمية السابقة

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Research Questions

  1. How can the final status of the city of Kirkuk be determined?
  2. What lessons can be learned from case studies of other ethno-territorial disputes?
  3. What steps can the United States or other outside parties take to promote a peaceful resolution of the city's status?
  4. What obstacles hinder power-sharing in multi-ethnic territories?

Tensions among Arabs, Kurds, and Turkomen in northern Iraq — particularly regarding the city of Kirkuk — have the potential to escalate into intercommunal violence that would greatly destabilize Iraq. The city's status is tied up in political, legal, and constitutional disputes over disputed territories, Iraq's oil and gas resources, and the power of Iraq's regions vis-à-vis Baghdad. Past efforts to resolve ethno-territorial conflicts, whether successful or not, offer insights that may facilitate a negotiated solution to the status of Kirkuk. An examination of agreements and negotiations regarding Brčko, Mostar, Northern Ireland, and Jerusalem demonstrates the importance of separating local disputes from national-level politics, emphasizing practical governance structures over symbols of sovereignty, developing adaptable power-sharing mechanisms and multi-ethnic security forces that protect the rights of current and potential future minorities, empowering local leaders, and marginalizing nationalistic spoilers who amplify ethnic tensions to consolidate their power. Confidence-building measures and successful resolution of local problems could demonstrate that meaningful inter-ethnic collaboration is possible and, by alleviating local tensions, provide "breathing space" for national-level officials to resolve strategic challenges. The negotiation process may be facilitated by considering whether a "grand bargain" can mitigate the zero-sum nature of the dispute, temporarily deferring especially contentious issues, and involving an impartial yet influential third party to bridge gaps and encourage compromise. The U.S. record of constructive engagement on Arab-Kurd issues, combined with its ability to influence debates on such unresolved national issues as federalism and hydrocarbons, suggests that active American diplomacy regarding Kirkuk could both eliminate a potential flashpoint and pave the way for Iraqi leaders to resolve broader political and economic disputes.

Key Findings

Ethnic Tensions and Territorial Conflicts Can Be Overcome

  • Arabs and Kurds have linked the emotionally laden concept of sovereignty with the pragmatic elements of governance and territorial control.
  • Resolution of outstanding political, legal, and constitutional disputes over disputed territories, Iraq's oil and gas resources, and the power of Iraq's regions vis-à-vis Baghdad would create a framework in which the status of Kirkuk could be decided.
  • Confidence-building measures and bottom-up solutions can reduce local ethnic tensions and provide national-level leaders with "breathing room" to address related constitutional, political, and economic disputes.
  • Effective settlements to ethno-territorial conflicts developed mechanisms for sharing political power, protecting minority interests, minimizing the influence of obstructionists and extremists, and seeking proportional representation in the government apparatus, while developing constructive provisions for addressing the impact of future demographic change.
  • To reduce inter-ethnic tensions in heterogeneous areas, local security forces should reflect the ethnic makeup of the population.

Outside Mediators Could Play an Important Role

  • Outside mediators, if empowered and mutually respected, can facilitate negotiations and enforce implementation of agreements.
  • Broad "grand bargains" can encourage compromise by widening the range of issues regarding which compromises can be made. However, it can often be valuable to defer especially contentious issues that could derail an agreement, as long as a mechanism exists to ensure its eventual resolution.
  • A multi-national peacekeeping force is unlikely to facilitate a Kirkuk settlement, but active U.S. diplomacy regarding both Arab-Kurd disputes and Iraqi constitutional challenges may prove productive.


  • Allow outside actors to promote the efforts of independent, local, civilian and political leaders, who might be able to create a dialogue on issues of interest to all.
  • Encourage the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq to continue its efforts to develop confidence-building measures and intercommunal dialogue.
  • Encourage discussions among local leaders regarding municipal governance, public services, housing, and other local issues.
  • Assign a senior U.S. special envoy to help facilitate discussions, identify compromises, and move negotiations forward.
  • Persuade Iraqi and Kurdish leaders to demilitarize Kirkuk.
  • Give the multi-ethnic Kirkuk municipal police extensive police training and all security responsibilities.

The research described in this report was prepared for U.S. Forces–Iraq. The research was conducted within the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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