kurdistan oil, kurds oil, kurd arab conflict
AP Photo/Safin Hamed
Kurdish president Massud Barzani, right, and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani open a ceremonial
valve during an event to celebrate the start of oil exports from the autonomous
region of

Oil Refinery Could Spark Start of Kurd/Arab Civil War in Iraq

July 22, 2009 05:32 PM
by Haley A. Lovett
Iraqi Kurds have opened their first oil refinery, stepping closer to independence from, and perhaps war with, Arab Iraqis.

Kurdistan vs. Arab Conflict Longstanding Over Oil, Land

Nearly two years ago, Kurdish Regional Government President Massoud Barzani warned that a civil war could be on the horizon for Iraq. Today, the potential for conflict seems ever greater.

The primary dispute between the Kurdish minority in Iraq and the Arab majority was then, as it is now, about land. The KRG would like to incorporate four Kurdish-populated regions of Iraq into its control. Meanwhile, according to Andrew Lee Butters of Time, officials in Baghdad have been putting off settling the claims, sparking accusations that Baghdad is simply waiting until its military forces regain strength so that it can control those areas by force. 

One city in particular, Kirkuk, is at the very heart of the dispute. The oil-rich Kirkuk region may contain as much as 20 percent of Iraq’s oil reserves, reported findingDulcinea in 2007. Under the regime of Saddam Hussein, Kurdish people were intentionally displaced from Kirkuk and the city underwent an “Arabization.” A reversal of this policy could lead to even more conflict for the people living in the area. Hussein was also responsible for mass killings of Kurdish people in the late 1980s, using poison gas to kill them and ordering killings of male Kurds.

And while Iraq’s refineries and oil pipelines were intentionally kept away from Kurdistan during Hussein’s reign, the area opened its first refinery on June 18 of this year, and has entered into production agreements directly with foreign oil companies. These moves could help Kurdistan become economically independent, but were made without the permission of Iraqi leaders in Baghdad.

Who Are the Iraqi Kurds?

There are more than 25 million Kurds living in Iraq. Along with the Sunnis and Shiites they are one of the most prominent groups in the country. Although Kurdish usually refers to an ethnic background, it can also mean anyone living in the Kurdistan region; Kurdish is also a language.

The Kurdish region was nearly given political autonomy after World War I, but Turkey rejected the Treaty of Sevres, and the Kurdish region was divided among Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.

Related Topic: Kurds in Turkey, Iran

One potential drawback of Kurdistan becoming an independent state, Butters points out, is that it would then be surrounded by countries with less-than-friendly attitudes toward an independent Kurdish state. These surrounding countries also have Kurdish minority populations, and fear that an independent Kurdish state could incite unrest in their own countries. As reported last year by findingDulcinea, Turkey and Iran fear that the Kurds living within their borders may want independence as well if the Iraqi Kurds get it.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines