Lessons from Iraq: Preventing conflict after Kirkuk

Op-ed: Ami Carpenter, PhD, is an associate professor at the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego, and teaches courses in conflict resolution, conflict analysis, and negotiation.

Since January 2017, I have traveled twice to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, to learn about how the region has coped so successfully with the refugee and IDP crisis. I’ve met with ministry officials, University leaders, United Nations aid workers; visited refugee camps, and held many conversations over sweet tea about the region’s post-ISIS future. With uncertainty following the Iraqi Army and Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMFs) reclaimed sovereignty over Kirkuk in recent days, I’ve reflected on the region’s local and regional peace infrastructure and wondered what contribution towards political dialogue between Baghdad and Irbil it might make.

What Hope for Negotiation? Plenty.

Sectarian tension in Iraq is very real, but so is the history of mediation and complex negotiations that have saved lives and reinstated governance in ISIS-cleared areas. Following the June 2014 massacre of Iraqi cadets at the Camp Speicher military base near Tikrit, local NGOs convened a dialogue between Sunni and Shia tribes in 2015 to prevent a violent escalation of tensions and revenge killings. The negotiations were led by two local NGOs: SANAD for Peacebuilding and the Network of Iraqi Facilitators (and supported by U.S. Institute of Peace). This dialogue is impressive because it was designed in line with one of the best practices in peacebuilding: vertical and horizontal integration. It provided linkages vertically by including the National Reconciliation Committee as well as the office of Iraq’s National Security Advisor, and horizontally across the lines of conflict by bringing over 30 tribes together.

It led to a formal inter-tribal agreement, and established a mechanism for vetting residents wishing to return to their homes in Tikrit to ensure those implicated in the massacre were excluded. After the agreement, about 400 families returned to Tikrit initially, and thousands more followed under the same mechanism. Today, almost all residents now have come back. Such a model could work in Kirkuk, to help resettle the Kurdish families that fled ahead of the Iraqi Army.

Despite the very public tension between Baghdad and Irbil, complex, negotiated agreements between these two centers of power have resulted in a variety of critical efforts. The military agreement among Erbil, Baghdad, and the US-led Coalition resulted in Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR). The UN’s complex humanitarian aid operation was made possible by close cooperation between Baghdad’s Joint Coordination and Monitoring Centre (JCMC) and the Joint Crisis Coordination Centre (JCC) in Irbil. And although imperfect, Hoshem Mohammad, Director of the JCC, believes that both the military and humanitarian cooperation “can be used as a foundation for ensuring cooperation and working together. And the international community can support this.”

The history of dialogue and cooperation is important to highlight, because it reminds us all that a political process is feasible and – especially after the wrenching intensity of the war against ISIS – desirable. What is required now is a political process for doing so, including one that invites women to the negotiating table (peace agreements are more comprehensive and durable when women are involved). The US must stay in Iraq to assist a political process for the disputed territories, including perhaps a special status for Kirkuk.

Cover Photo: Steve Cline USAF

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