Conflict Continues in Oil-Rich Kirkuk

The northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk is just outside Iraqi Kurdistan, but the Kurds want to claim it as their own. Guest Host Audie Cornish speaks with Quil Lawrence, author of the book, Invisible Nation: How the Kurds' Quest for Statehood is Shaping Iraq and the Middle East.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

Turkey claims its war planes struck Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq yesterday. That region is one of the most contested parts of the country, especially the city of Kirkuk, which is the center of Iraq's petroleum industry. Kirkuk lies just outside the semiautonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, and the Kurds claim the city for themselves.

It's also close to the border of Turkey, which has its own Kurdish population. Kirkuk and the Kurdish region in general have taken a back seat in the news recently, and we wanted to find out what's been happening there lately, so we're talking to Quil Lawrence. He's the author of "Invisible Nation: How the Kurds' Quest for Statehood is Shaping Iraq and the Middle East." Welcome.

Mr. QUIL LAWRENCE (Author): Thank you.

CORNISH: Now, first, give us an outline of the current situation of what's going on in Kirkuk.

Mr. LAWRENCE: Well, Kirkuk is a city that's claimed by the Kurds, they say. It's historically theirs. The only census information we have goes back to the 50s where it shows that maybe the city was majority Turcoman populated but the countryside and the province was certainly a Kurdish majority.

It's an issue because the oil in Kirkuk would give the Kurds, if they were to make it part of their federal region in the north, it would make them much closer to independence financially.

CORNISH: Why is it that the news out of that region, particularly about that area in Kirkuk, isn't splashed on the front pages in the U.S. I mean, do you think we're really paying attention to what's going on, and why should we?

Mr. LAWRENCE: This is one of the powder kegs that could draw the region into a conflict. Because there are Kurdish populations in Turkey, in Iran and in Syria, that all want just what the Kurds of Iraq have, they all want an autonomous zone, they all want to be able to speak their language and name their children Kurdish names, all of these cultural rights.

Anything happening in Kirkuk could draw in the rest of the region. Many people think that if the Kurds take Kirkuk this would be the beginning of breaking up the country.

CORNISH: How is the American invasion into Iraq affected the Kurd situation?

Mr. LAWRENCE: Well, it was a dream come true for the Kurds. You have to go back all the way back to 1991 when after the first Gulf War, when President Bush Senior said that the Iraqi people should rise up and inspire a Kurdish and Shiite uprising. It's what I call the accidental creation of Kurdistan.

The pictures of two million Kurds fleeing across the mountains in the snow and dying on the hillsides spurred the first humanitarian intervention, which was led by the United States and Britain and France. This created a safe zone, so when the United States fully invaded Iraq in 2003, it really just cemented the gains that the Kurds had already made.

CORNISH: Now, I'm normally based in Nashville where there is one of the, I think the largest population of Iraqi Kurds in the U.S. And when there were tensions on the Turkish border, this was of great concern to the American Kurds that were here. Was there any kind of, I guess, compromise on the horizon that people are looking towards or trying to work towards?

Mr. LAWRENCE: They're working through some of the problems right now. In 2005 when the United States sort of helped push through the Iraqi constitution, the Kurds got everything they wanted out of that document, and that included a referendum on the city of Kirkuk. That was supposed to take place by December of 2007. You'll have noticed that deadline has passed.

Now, the United Nations has been in there and they've been making some very interesting proposals and some progress about the way to settle some of the disputed areas. Maybe take the towns and villages around that re undisputedly Kurdish, make this part of the Kurdistan region, and then slowly work on the other issues.

But it brings up an interesting question, because that is part of the Iraqi constitution; it was written in there. And the deadline for this referendum was more or less ignored. So, I have to wonder what other parts of the Iraqi constitution they're going to ignore.

CORNISH: Now, since you spent so many years in Iraq and in Kurdistan, can you tell us what your thoughts are about the prospect of a fully independent Kurdistan in the near future?

Mr. LAWRENCE: Not in our lifetime. The Kurds right now have everything they can get short of independence. And they've said many times it's just not in our interest. We know that we would lose even our American friends if we tried to redraw the map.

They have just about everything but a country in name, and most of them are fairly satisfied with this. There are a lot of young people who are calling out for a fully independent state but the politicians in Kurdistan anyway in Iraq known that they've got as much as they're going to get. They're not going to push for a state.

CORNISH: Quil Lawrence, thank you so much for giving us a primmer on Kirkuk.

Mr. LAWRENCE: Thank you.

CORNISH: Quil Lawrence is the author of the book "Invisible Nation: How the Kurds' Quest for Statehood is Shaping Iraq and the Middle East."

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