Despite the security risks, delegations from 11 divided cities will arrive in Kirkuk, Iraq on Saturday for a six-day conference led by UMass Boston’s Moakley Chair for Peace and Reconciliation Professor Padraig O’Malley. Representatives from these cities will share their experiences dealing with similar divisions that tore their own countries apart in decades of war. They will try to help Kirkuk find ways to settle its problems before the city explodes in violence and Kurdistan, along with the central government, become embroiled in another war.
These cities are members of the Forum for Cities in Transition (FCT), an international network of mayors, councilors, municipal officials, business people, and representatives of the voluntary and community sector from previously warring communities across the globe. The forum works on the principle that cities that are in conflict or have emerged from conflict are in the best position to help other cities in similar situations. FCT began as a pilot project in 2009 at UMass Boston and delegates decided to meet annually in one of the member cities to continue the peace and reconciliation processes.
Kirkuk is making extraordinary security arrangements to ensure the safety of the delegates from UMass Boston and the 11 divided cities of Baghdad, Beirut, Belfast, Derry-Londonderry, Kaduna, Kirkuk, Mitrovica, Mostar, Nicosia, Ramallah, and Tripoli. Because of their commitment to help fellow forum members, these conference participants are willing to travel to Kirkuk despite the risks and the possibility of being targeted by insurgent groups.
Kirkuk is one of the most dangerous and volatile cities in Iraq. The city is divided among Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen, along with smaller minorities from other ethnic and religious groups. The Kurds want to become part of the autonomous region of neighboring Kurdistan while Arabs and Turkmen want to remain within Kirkuk “proper."
The host city has a past and present history as a fractured society. Kirkuk was heavily “Arabized” during the regime of Saddam Hussein. In a vicious war with the Kurds who were seeking autonomy, Saddam cleared them from the city and replaced them with Arabs. After the U.S. invasion in 2003, displaced Kurds returned to Kirkuk to reclaim their homes and property. According to Article 140 of the Iraq constitution, the matter of where Kirkuk “belonged” would be settled by referendum by December 31, 2007. However, this referendum has yet to take place, mainly due to security reasons and the inability to agree on who should have the right to vote.
Today, tensions between the Kirkuk Regional Government (KRG) and the central government in Baghdad are at an all-time high as they try to sort out their differences on the city’s standing. Kirkuk is at the epicenter of the conflict between the two and often the scene of some of Iraq’s most violent spates of bombings.
Also, over 15 percent of the country's oil reserves and 40 percent of natural gas reserves are in the Kirkuk region, making it the most resource-rich governate in Iraq.
O'Malley and a small group of McCormack Graduate School staff are organizing and leading this third annual conference. Previous forums were held in Mitrovica in 2010 and Derry/Londonderry in 2011. Collectively the cities work together because they share special characteristics that bind them as a result of their past experience in war.
According to O’Malley, “The fact that delegations from 11 other cities which once were the epicenters of their own communal conflicts are willing to make the hazardous journey to Kirkuk in an attempt to assist the city is not only testimony to their courage but of their commitment to help each other. They are aware of the dangers that may face them in Kirkuk, but are undeterred.”
Padraig O’Malley is the John Joseph Moakley Distinguished Professor of Peace and Reconciliation and a celebrated facilitator/convener and author on topics related to divided societies. O’Malley has played major roles in breaking the gridlock and promoting peace in South Africa, Northern Ireland, and, more recently, the Middle East.
The Forum for Cities in Transition from Conflict maintains a website that allows the cities to interact with each other on both a formal and informal basis. The site is also open to the public, who are invited to visit and participate.