After Islamic State, Baghdad cannot govern Iraq from centre
In a brief interview in August, which seems quite ominous in retrospect, Kirkuk's Kurdish Governor Najmaldin Karim was asked if his successful governance in the province could be replicated in places such as Nineveh through the installation of strong and dynamic local governors and leaders.
Karim answered by pointing out that across Iraq provincial governors were being removed.
"The governor of Mosul is in an uncertain situation - they're calling for his removal; the governor of Basra is being removed," he said. "The governor of Saladin is in prison; the governor of Anbar has been dismissed by the governing council, so it's real chaos."
The following month the Iraqi parliament voted to remove Karim from his post and, by mid-October, Iraqi soldiers were in his office after a military takeover of the entire province, carried out with the support of his own party, forcing him to leave.
This trend, whereby an Iraq emboldened by its hard-won victory against IS chooses to rule directly over the country's various different provinces is alarming for a number of reasons. Kirkuk and Nineveh provinces are the most worrying cases.
In Kirkuk it's still unclear, more than a month after Baghdad re-took control, how the province, a potential ethnic powder-keg, will be administered.
"Politically Kirkuk looks to be up in the air," Iraq analyst Joel Wing told The New Arab. "The PUK [Patriotic Union of Kurdistan] wants to name a new governor, but Baghdad hasn't decided on what to do. [There] could be elections in the province, finally, or some other alternative. There's an appointed governor running things temporarily for now."
If Iraq opts to run the region with a military governor, one of the options it has, it will reek of Saddam Hussein-era governance in the contentious region.
"For Kurds, appointing a military governor, even if for a while, means Kirkuk's restoration to the pre-2003 era and the reminder of bitter memories when the Kurds were the most aggrieved and affected group in the city,"pointed out Nahwi Saeed in Al Monitor. "The central government may be powerful enough to hold Kirkuk for now, but appointing a military governor would push the Kurds to one side, which is likely to prove both provocative and unsustainable."
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|A federal Iraq could empower regions to be provide more representative governance and avoid sectarian resentments, argues Paul Iddon|
While Kurds are believed to be in the majority in the region, Baghdad's takeover displaced 181,000 people, mostly Kurds, who the United Nations reports have yet to return. Furthermore, there are serious worries that these recent upheavals could lead to demographic changes in the ethnically mixed region.
As governor, Karim credited the people of Kirkuk for sheltering more than 700,000 Sunni Arabs displaced by IS, but insisted they needed to return to their former homes when it was safe, so as not to upend the province's demographic make-up. Now, just under two-hundred-thousand Kurds have been displaced from their own homes in Kirkuk by the Iraqi army and Shia Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).
The deposed Kirkuk governor also stressed numerous times that he was not going to recklessly push Kirkuk into the Kurdistan Region, nor let Kirkuk's participation in the September independence referendum determine Kirkuk's ultimate status. Last year he even suggested Kirkuk could become its own independent region outside of both Baghdad and Erbil's control as a possible solution to its status, an idea his own party opposed at the time.
|If Baghdad today has no proper plan for the governance of Kirkuk and its ultimate status then all it has done by taking it over is risk destabilising that key disputed territory|
Autonomy in return for stability
If Baghdad today has no proper plan for the governance of Kirkuk and its ultimate status then all it has done by taking it over is risk destabilising that key disputed territory at a time when delicate post-IS stabilisation efforts are essential for the security of the country.
For example, in Tuz Khurmatu, where PMF forces have displaced Kurds, there is a new 500-strong armed group. As of writing nobody knows who they are but there is speculation that they are an IS offshoot "or Sunnis standing against Shia authorities in Baghdad".
If they are IS under a different name, they could potentially capitalise on the instability caused by the power vacuum Baghdad instigated in Kirkuk and, in a worst case scenario, try and take over the region to re-establish the "caliphate". Mere days into the Mosul operation in October 2016, IS attempted to capture Kirkuk city but were prevented by the Peshmerga in a one-day battle, with help from the aforementioned Sunni Arabs refugees there, who turned over IS members seeking shelter in their homes to the Kurdish authorities.
These very same Sunni Arabs don't sympathise with IS but nevertheless could remain neutral, or even acquiesce to, any armed group confronting the Shia PMF militias who have committed serious abuses against the residents of Khurmatu.
Baghdad also needs to exercise shrewdness when it comes to devising workable post-IS governance in Mosul and the wider Nineveh province.
Before the operation against IS in Mosul, the former governor of Nineveh, Atheel al-Nujaifi, proposed a post-IS division of the province into different regions based along ethno-sectarian lines - hence, more homogenous regions for Christians, Sunni Arabs, Shabaks, Turkmen and so forth. These regions would have significant local authority and would, in the view of Nujaifi and supporters, lessen the possibility that another IS-like tyranny could exploit Sunni resentment against an unrepresentative, or oppressive, Baghdad in order to seize power and territory yet again.
Karim had a similar idea for Kirkuk, in which he envisaged giving substantial local autonomy to Arabs and Turkmen in their areas in recognition that the province was not homogenous like, for example, Kurdistan.
In Basra, down south, whose population is for the most part Shia Arab, locals feel disenfranchised with Baghdad for other reasons. They see their resource-rich region pumping out stupendous amounts of oil while their economy and infrastructure is neglected. Occasionally there are calls from there for autonomy from Baghdad under the belief that will see the riches of the region being invested back into it and its people.
Saladin, a Sunni-majority province, also sought to do this in October 2011, expressing frustration with Baghdad's "domination over the provincial council authorities".
Additionally, the Kurds, who enjoy the only full-fledged autonomous region and government within Iraq, would unlikely have sought their recent referendum on independence had Baghdad respected and abided by the articles of the constitution - the very first of which declares that Iraq is "federal" and a "parliamentary and democratic republic". Article 119 even gives Iraq's different provinces "the right to organise into a region".
Autonomy might not be the solution to either Basra or Saladin's problems. The carving up of Nineveh into smaller regions may also not prove an adequate solution, nor might several of the multiple proposals for the administration of Kirkuk.
Nevertheless, the tried and tested formula of Baghdad essentially micromanaging everything from the centre has proven calamitous to date and needs rectification in order to prevent another potential cycle of violence and chaos that could further destabilise and divide the eternally troubled country.
Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.
Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon