By Bashdar Pusho Ismaeel
Maliki spearheaded an Iraqi Council of Ministers meeting this week in the Kirkuk province, which inflamed already tense relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Such an assertive and brazen move by Maliki shows he is willing to stand up and defy the Kurds despite fierce warning by Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani in recent months.
In the face of this development, Kurdistan can remain silent at its own peril. While Barzani has been vociferous both at home and abroad regarding the centralist tendencies of Maliki and the rapid drive towards Iraq's collapse, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and other opposition figures have been much more passive in contrast.
The issue of Maliki's authoritarian tendencies, lack of implementation of constitutional articles and his show of strength by strolling around disputed territories, is pertinent to the whole of Kurdistan and every Kurdish faction must unite and take a stand.
Stoking of hostilities in Kirkuk
The timing and significance of the ministerial meeting, the first of its kind in Kirkuk, is no coincidence. The move by Baghdad was designed to be provocative in nature and highlight clearly to the Kurdish leadership that the identity of Kirkuk is Iraqi and Baghdad's dominance is far-reaching.
Obviously, people will be quick to point out that Kirkuk is already part of Iraq but it's the identity of the city that Maliki is emphasizing. In simple terms, he will not allow Kirkuk to become a Kurdistani city.
Maliki's statements, which failed to mention the Constitution, is in contrast to Article 140 and principles that formed the blueprint of the country. It is not for anyone to decide the fate of Kirkuk but the inhabitants themselves, this includes Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens and not specifically one group.
A constitution is the genetic framework of any country, it is the basis by which governments rule and laws are devised. However, in Iraq, many articles continue to gather dust on the political shelf and constitutional laws are bypassed all too often.
The implementation of Article 140 is not only significant for Kirkuk but for the whole of Iraq. If Article 140 is bypassed then effectively, the whole Constitution is bypassed. Without implementation of all articles that make up the Constitution or adherence to constitutional principles, then Iraq is dead.
Battle for Kirkuk
Kirkuk has been a key symbol of Kurdish history and identity for thousands of years -- long before the discovery of oil, the fall of the Ottoman Empire or the rise of Arab nationalism.
It has been a historic red line for Kurdistan and to forgo claim to Kirkuk now would be akin to betraying Kurdish legacy, its martyrs and the immense sacrifices Kurds have made.
Of all the Kurdish cities, Kirkuk clearly suffered the most under Baathist rule. Harsh repression and Arabization policies saw the forced deportation of thousands of Kurds. Kurds were forced to abandon their heritage and succumb to Arab domination in the province.
Ironically, it is now the Arabs who complain of been treated badly. Returning Kurds who seek to reclaim their historical and legal rights are now the ones outreaching. If Baghdad wants to truly entice the Kurds, turn a new page and is sincere about the principles of union with the Kurds, Kirkuk is the first and only place to start.
Unfortunately, it is appearing ever likely that Article 140 will not be implemented unless sentiments in Baghdad drastically change, which looks like a more unrealistic hope by the day. The implementation of Article 140 is overdue by almost five years, which tells its own story.
Furthermore, provincial elections in Kirkuk, and importantly a national a census, have long been delayed by Baghdad. A census is akin to a de facto referendum on disputed territories, if the demography of Kirkuk shows the Kurds as a majority then it once again only confirms the Kurdish identity of the province.
Baghdad clearly acknowledges that implementation of Article 140 would result in its return to Kurdistan. But one cannot pick and choose democracy as one sees fit. Baghdad cannot refuse to implement a referendum only because it fears its inevitable outcome.
Kurdistan's next steps
The patient waiting game played by the Kurdish leadership clearly has not worked. If Kurds had gone with instincts at the time and unilaterally annexed Kirkuk in 2003, then the issue of the status of Kirkuk would be a foregone conclusion.
Kurds adopted politics and democracy to resolve disputed territories when clearly Baghdad and Arab nationalists were not ready and did not have the stomach for such motions.
Kurdistan needs to be unequivocal in any negotiations in Baghdad -- the time for mere threats and rhetoric is long gone. If Article 140 is not implemented, then the Kurds should back out of Baghdad altogether and hold a unilateral referendum on the city and annex the region.
The Kurdish opposition parties, and particularly the PUK, have lacked the punch in raising concerns over Maliki. As KRG-Baghdad relations plunge to new lows, the confrontation will only intensify. This requires all Kurdish parties to unite in Kirkuk, in the Kurdistan Region and in Baghdad.
According to the Constitution, Kirkuk's identity is disputed, therefore the KRG has an equal say on the province as Baghdad on political, social and economic issues. The Kurds should hold a KRG Council of Ministers meeting in Baghdad in the same way.
Maliki is clearly showing the Kurds the extent of his power in Iraq and intimidating the Kurds by demonstrating his reach within Iraq. The Kurds need to take action as much as rhetoric to show that Kirkuk remains a Kurdistani city and remains directly in their sphere of influence.
According to a statement, Maliki had quoted "The problem of Kirkuk cannot be resolved by force and interference, but by the will of its people and by keeping its Iraqi identity." This in itself is contradictory. You cannot adhere to the will of the people and insistent on an identity at the same time -- it's the will of the people and voices of the masses that determine the identity.
Kirkuk having a Kurdish majority does not mean to deny the Arabs and Turkmen populations. Their rights should be closely guarded in any eventuality but as the referendum will highlight, and as history and geography clearly proves, Kirkuk is a Kurdish city. Many Iraqi cities, such as Mosul, contain large Kurdish minorities so it can clearly work both ways.
Maliki's ulterior motive
Not only did Maliki intend to make a show of strength to the Kurds, but his move in Kirkuk, where Sunni Arab nationalism is rife, was designed to reach out and appease Sunni blocs. The Arab nationalist card against the Kurds has long been used to bridge the sectarian divide in Iraq.
The leaders of Arab parties, who strongly reject Article 140, were clearly jubilant at Maliki's visit and hailed its significance. Kirkuk has been largely neglected by Baghdad with the people suffering from a lack of security, employment, investment and poor public services. The Sunnis have suffered a great deal under recent Shiite domination, but clearly sentiments can be fickle as Sunnis were suddenly quick to praise Maliki.
If Sunni's want what's best for Kirkuk, then they should made strong demands from Maliki to improve security and the crumbling standard of living.
At the same time, if Maliki really wanted to improve conditions in Kirkuk, then he should have insisted on initiatives to improve services. If Maliki wants to entice Kurds in Kirkuk, then he could have reassured them on Article 140 and highlighted their tragic past as a reason to build new bridges in Kirkuk.
In addition to the Kurds, influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and other key Shiite groups critical of Maliki's policies, have backed Maliki into a corner. However, Maliki is manipulating the sectarian divide and using all his manipulative tendencies and experience in clinging to power in Baghdad to fight his corner.