Map of Kurdistan Region, Kirkuk, and the rest of Iraq, with Palkana highlighted at the edge of the disputed Kirkuk area.
Palkana: The flashpoint village on the edge of the disputed Kirkuk region, caught in the intricate web of Iraq's land dispute saga.

Palkana land disputes stoke tensions in Kirkuk

Palkana, a small and tranquil village northwest of Kirkuk, has become well-known among Kurdish media consumers due to ongoing land disputes between ethnic Kurds and Arabs. 

Reports last month from Kurdish media detailed several arrests of Kurdish farmers in Palkana and surrounding villages by the Iraqi Army. The alleged intent was to halt farming activities. Farmers claimed the army sought to destroy crucial agricultural tools and attempted to arrest a tribal leader. This was not an isolated incident. Tensions, predominantly among the farmers themselves, remain high in approximately 40 villages, including Palkana, within the disputed territory of the Sargaran sub-district of the Dubiz district.

Home to 25 families, Palkana encompasses an area of 60,000 acres, which includes farmland and oil reserves.

For Kurdish farmers, however, this incident represents another chapter of historical injustice. Their lands, along with those belonging to other ethnic minorities, were confiscated by the former Baath regime beginning in the 1970s. The former regime enacted a series of decrees to alter the demography of the oil-rich Kirkuk province and other parts of northern Iraq with diverse ethnic populations. Farmlands were purchased from local Kurds, Turkomen, and other ethnic groups, then contracted to Arabs from central and southern Iraq. This was part of an “Arabization” process, which is addressed in the 2005 Iraqi Constitution’s Article 140. The 2007 deadline for implementing Article 140 has long passed.

Article 140 outlines a political process to determine the fate of disputed territories, including demographic normalization, a census, and a referendum on whether Kirkuk should join the Kurdistan Region or remain under federal government control. Little progress has been made, and the situation is further complicated as the lands have changed hands numerous times. Therefore, current Arab owners, who may have purchased more recently, could feel entitled to their properties. 

Protracted conflict

In late January 2023, Palkana witnessed the deployment of another Iraqi Army unit. Local Kurdish farmers reported being barred from accessing their lands, with threats of legal consequences if they defied the restriction.

About two months earlier, on the first day of Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan’s fasting period, nearly 400 resettled Arabs reportedly assaulted Kurdish residents in Palkana. This violent confrontation resulted in injuries on both sides. Local media outlets reported the use of wooden sticks and rocks during the conflict. The Kurdish villagers contended that the Arab attackers sought to intimidate them into leaving their homes and farmlands.

In response to this event, the General Board for Kurdistani Areas Outside the Region of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) condemned the violence initiated by Arabs and urged respect and the implementation of Article 140.

Following these altercations, the Iraqi Army prohibited villagers and farmers in Palkana from harvesting wheat and barley in an attempt to prevent further Arab-Kurdish confrontations. However, the Kurdish farmers indicated that the Army lacked any official documentation to enforce the harvest ban.

Since October 2017, the Iraqi Army has consistently denied Kurdish farmers in disputed areas, such as Sargaran and Palkana, the right to cultivate their lands. Frequent disputes over land ownership between Arabs and Kurdish villagers have occurred, especially during harvest and planting seasons. This problem extends beyond Kirkuk; similar conflicts regarding agricultural land ownership persistently trouble farmers in regions like Khanaqin, Tuz Khurmatu, and the Nineveh Plain. 

The historical roots of Kirkuk’s land controversies

Beginning in the 1970s, Saddam Hussein’s Baath party initiated a policy known as “Arabization.” Under this plan, Kurdish, Turkmen, and other ethnic minorities in Kirkuk were forcibly displaced and relocated to northern provinces, while their agricultural lands were leased to Arab settlers from central and southern Iraq, primarily Sunni Arabs. This process continued until the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003.

Following the regime change, these Arab settlers were compensated to return to their original homes, allowing Kurdish and Turkmen farmers to reclaim their ancestral lands. However, the issue of agricultural land ownership in Kirkuk and other disputed areas has remained unresolved for nearly two decades.

Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution was designed to address these agricultural land ownership issues. Yet, the clause’s practical implementation fell short, fueling ongoing conflict.

The question of agricultural land ownership was left unanswered until Oct. 16, 2017. On that date, Iraqi federal government security forces reestablished control over Kirkuk and other disputed territories, leading to a withdrawal of Peshmerga forces.

From 2014 to October 2017, during the Islamic State’s (IS) assault on parts of Iraq, the Kurdistan Region maintained control over Kirkuk and most disputed areas, providing security. Nonetheless, the unresolved agricultural land issue continued to be a persistent source of conflict, spreading beyond Kirkuk to Khanaqin, Tuz Khurmatu, and the Nineveh Plain.

In recent years, sporadic protests and conflicts have emerged due to these land disputes. Notably, in July of the previous year, tensions escalated in Haftagar, followed by protests in five villages of Kirkuk’s Dubiz district against the Iraqi Army’s prohibition of cultivating over 25,000 hectares of agricultural land.

Land ownership disputes have strained relations between local residents and officials, particularly in and around Palkana. Such tensions have impacted about 35 villages in the Sargaran sub-district of western Kirkuk, contributing to a daily atmosphere of unrest.

Records from the Khanaqin Agriculture Department reveal that over 2,000 agricultural land contracts were signed with Arab citizens between 1976 and 2003. This escalating tension culminated in the formation of a parliamentary committee in late 2021 to investigate the issue, but their efforts failed to yield a resolution.

The initial allocation of these agricultural lands to Arab farmers was a result of decisions by the Baath Party’s Revolutionary Leadership Council, led by Saddam Hussein. In response, the current government under Mohammed Shia Sudani has invalidated the defunct Revolutionary Leadership Council’s rulings, especially those related to disputed regions.

In November 2022, 14 Kurdish parties in Kirkuk jointly wrote a letter to Iraqi President Latif Rashid, pleading for an end to military interference in the province’s affairs and a lawful resolution to the agricultural land dilemma. This followed a similar appeal in November 2018, when Kurdish farmers met with then-President Barham Salih, who promised the establishment of a committee to address these issues. The problem remains unresolved to this day.

Legal battles and the struggle for land ownership

Amid escalating tensions and mounting legal challenges, numerous cases involving agricultural land ownership remain unresolved, lodged in the courts by both Kurdish and Arab farmers. In a recent legal proceeding, about eight months prior, the Daquq court ruled in favor of Kurdish farmers, granting them ownership of 1,113 hectares of land. This decision effectively suspended the claims of Arab farmers who sought to continue exploiting the agricultural land they had acquired through contracts during the Baath regime.

In an attempt to resolve these land disputes, on June 19, former Speaker of the Kurdistan Parliament, Yousif Mohammed Sadiq, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) MP in Iraq, Dilan Ghafour, lawyer Zardasht Khalid Mohammed, and several Kurdish farmers filed a lawsuit in the Iraqi Federal Supreme Court.

Before this legal action, Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the Supreme Committee for the Implementation of Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, issued a formal directive to Kirkuk officials. He declared that the contracts for agricultural lands held by Arab farmers in the Kirkuk Governorate should not be renewed, citing Iraqi Cabinet Resolution No. 29 of 2012. This resolution aims to invalidate all decisions made by Hussein’s Baath Party and the now-defunct North Affairs Committee.

Iraqi Resolution No. 92 advocates returning the agricultural land to its pre-1970s Northern Affairs Committee decision status. Amiri reaffirmed that the government’s resolution remains in effect and no contracts should be renewed.

On June 21, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) welcomed Amiri’s formal directive to reactivate the Committee of Article 140 by the Federal Government. However, it emphasized that fulfilling these promises takes precedence over mere statements.

The complexity of these Baath-era laws presents a significant obstacle. While the Iraqi Ministry of Justice issued a decree in September 2020, suspending all agricultural contracts granted during the Baath Party rule in seven Iraqi provinces, including Kirkuk, Kirkuk’s local Agriculture Department refused to comply.

In 2021, Judge Qasim Mohammed, president of the Kirkuk Court of Appeal, told NGO-funded Kirkuk Now that the issue of agricultural land ownership would be resolved through legal channels and court proceedings. He noted that the original inhabitants of these areas, with documented proof of ownership, could regain their agricultural contracts by filing complaints in court.

Judge Mohammed explained that due to Article 140 of the constitution, these agricultural contracts had been suspended. However, the owners of these suspended contracts, who are the original inhabitants and hadn’t received financial compensation, had the right to file court complaints to lift the land suspension.

In contrast, Arab farmers claimed to have “certified documents” validating their land ownership. They contended that the disputed lands were theirs by right, not the Kurds’, and they had returned to the area based on their agricultural contracts.

Article 140: Resolution or catalyst for chaos?

In early 2005, the Iraqi constitution was ratified, with Article 140 outlining a plan to address the issue of disputed territories within the country. These territories, including the province of Kirkuk, had undergone substantial shifts in their political and demographic landscapes due to the policies enforced by Saddam Hussein’s government from 1968 to 2003.

According to Article 140, a three-stage process — normalization, census, and a referendum — was to be executed by the end of 2007 to decide the fate of these disputed territories. However, previous Iraqi governments failed to effectively implement this article.

Last November, the newly formed Iraqi government under Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Sudani decided to revive the High Committee for the Implementation of Article 140. The committee’s mandate would involve budget allocation and the distribution of financial entitlements to those impacted by this article. The committee’s formation was anticipated to occur within a month following the establishment of the government.

Despite this, there were contrasting viewpoints surrounding Article 140. The Arab Council in Kirkuk and the United Arab Front opposed the article, deeming it obsolete and a potential trigger for chaos. The Arab and Turkmen parties in Kirkuk argued that consensus among the communities was crucial to resolving the Kirkuk issue, rather than relying on the procedures set forth in Article 140.

The Turkmen parties stressed that Article 140 had fallen short in finding a peaceful resolution to the Kirkuk dispute and the agricultural land ownership issue. They called for their perspectives to be considered, feeling sidelined in the implementation of this article.

At the same time, Dizhwar Fayeq, head of the KRG’s Article 140 Board, advocated for the implementation of Article 140 and the reformation of the committee. He urged all parties to commit to its execution.

The implementation of Article 140 encompasses various elements, including compensation for internally displaced persons and the repatriation of families to their native lands. So far, over 54,000 families in the Kirkuk province have received compensation checks, while many families continue to wait for their compensation.

The new Iraqi Prime Minister, Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, has reestablished the High Committee tasked with the implementation of Article 140 and allocated funding for the process. However, how much of this can be achieved given the complex historical issue of land disputes is yet to be seen.