Along the highway that runs through the oil city of Kirkuk stands a meters-high statue of a Kurdish peshmerga fighter. It is just as symbolic as the tank from Saddam’s army that, painted by children in cheerful colors, stood along the highway to Sulaymaniya for years. The message of both: Kirkuk is Kurdish.
For the Kurds it is clear: the oil city is their Jerusalem. To Arabize the city, Saddam Hussein had expelled some 100,000 Kurds and brought in Arabs from the south instead. This further complicated the demography, especially when after the fall of Saddam, the Kurds returned. Plus thousands of their comrades without those same roots.
As a result, they form the majority in the city. Between 2014 and 2017, they also controlled it politically and militarily and managed to keep the city out of ISIS hands. But then their fighters and administrators were chased away by the Iraqi army and Shiite militias, after holding a referendum on Kurdish independence that would include the city.
It is not only the Kurds who claim that Kirkuk is ‘theirs’. The Turkmens also argue that this has historically been the case for them. Arabs have tried to regain land that Kurds reclaimed after 2003, and have partly succeeded. Both groups claim that the Kurds abused their majority in the provincial council for years to serve only their own interests.
To make it even more complicated, there are both Shiite and Sunni Turkmens. There is also a Christian minority in Kirkuk (Assyrians, Chaldeans and others). There are (Shiite) Fayli Kurds, and Kakais (followers of an ancient faith, Yarsanism). Where before the Arabization the groups lived alongside each other, spoke each other’s languages and formed a certain unity, that is all gone now.
It should be clear that this is a hot mess, which with a little help is ready to boil over. And that is what happened in recent days. With dead and wounded as a result.
The fact that the flame hit the pan has to do with the provincial elections coming up in December, in which the Kurds could once again win a majority according to demographics. Except for the fact that the two largest parties, the KDP and PUK, have not worked together since they were expelled from Kirkuk. And many other parties would like to keep it that way.
The problems began with Prime Minister Sudani’s decision that the KDP should get back its former headquarters on the highway in Kirkuk. That was confiscated in 2017 by the Iraqi army, after which the KDP withdrew from Kirkuk. This return is part of agreements that Baghdad and Erbil have made, which led to the KDP participating in Sudani’s government and a willingness to hand over the sale of oil to Baghdad.
Turkmens and Arabs saw it coming; the KDP back in Kirkuk and in the provincial government. An Arab tribal leader appealed against the PM’s decision to the highest Iraqi court, because the KDP had allegedly stolen the land from the Iraqi Ministry of Finance.
Iran saw an opportunity to stir things up a bit. Since 2017, it has had Iraqi Shiite militias in Kirkuk, such as Assaib al-Haq, without any demographic background for this. Since October 2017, so for almost six years, these pro-Iranian militias have gained a foothold. Just like in Mosul, they play not only a military role, but also an economic one. The Iraqi security forces let them have their way, as they hardly have anything power in Kirkuk.
Under the leadership of the militias, a blockade was set up at the former KDP office, blocking the most important connection between Kirkuk and Kurdistan for a week. Which is painful for the many Kurds who live off trade. Only when the highest Iraqi court ruled that the decision to transfer the property to the KDP had to be suspended, did this end.
Kurds in Kirkuk took to the streets. What started as a protest against the blockade turned into pro-Kurdish protests. One of the protesters told the TV channel Rudaw shortly before he was shot dead that ‘Kirkuk is a Kurdistani city’. The Kurdish majority has felt oppressed for six years and did not need much to revolt.
Soon the militias started shooting live rounds at protesters. Many Iraqis will be reminded of the Tizreen protests in Baghdad by young people against corruption, where militias did the same. In Kirkuk, it led to four deaths and fifteen wounded on Saturday.
The Kurds were also heavily provoked. The Iraqi flag was hoisted on the peshmerga statue, which the Kurds see as an insult. In the camp that pro-Iranian Hashed militias have set up elsewhere in the city, anti-Kurdish slogans are shouted. The militia members swear that ‘they will not leave a single Kurd alive in Kirkuk’. And while the Iraqi prime minister promised to find the perpetrators, the Iraqi army instead raided the predominantly Kurdish neighborhoods.
Turkey was also eager to participate. During a visit to the Iranian capital Tehran on Sunday, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan emphasized that ‘Kirkuk is the homeland of the Turkmens’. He also continued to blame the Turkish-Kurdish PKK, for which there is no evidence but which fits the image of its main enemy that Turkey projects at home and abroad.
There is not much that Ankara and Tehran agree on. But that a stable Iraq would not be good for them, that still applies. Now it is Iraqi militias instigated by Tehran who are stoking tensions between Kurds and Arabs in Kirkuk. Turkey causes division in Iraq with bombings in the Kurdistan Region.
For the pro-Iranian militias, the order comes as a godsend. Since the terrorist group ISIS was declared defeated in July 2017, their influence has waned. And that also applies to their popularity among the Iraqi population, due to corruption, self-enrichment and violence against opponents. By defending Kirkuk as an Iraqi city, they are trying to polish up their image.
In six years, the militias have gained alarmingly much power, and are now being used to pit Iraqis against each other. Not only in Kirkuk. I wrote earlier about the problems in Nineveh province, where Christians and the (Shiite) Shabak minority are pitted against each other. In Tal Afar, the militias are recruiting Shiite Turkmens and putting them against Sunni Turkmens (many of whom had ISIS sympathies). In Sinjar, they play Yazidis against each other with their own militia, and prevent implementation of the Sinjar agreement that was supposed to enable the return of the thousands of displaced Yazidis.
Kirkuk is Iraqi, that was the message when the Iraqi army kicked out the Kurds in 2017. But when it is convenient, it is Turkmen, or maybe Arab after all. Just never Kurdish. (Iraqi) unity is also far from reality.
As long as the militias retain so much power that there are in effect two power centers in Baghdad, there will be no stability in Iraq and thus no security. These days in Kirkuk, Iraqis are being painfully reminded of this.