The Challenge in Iraq’s Other Cities: Kirkuk

The Challenge in Iraq’s Other Cities: Kirkuk

Experts predict that if civil war erupts in Iraq, the spark may come from Kirkuk. Oil-rich and under de facto Kurdish control, the city has emerged as one of Iraq’s most hotly contested flashpoints.

June 30, 2006 4:16 pm (EST)

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Kirkuk, an ethnically mixed city of Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen, among them Muslims and Christians, is in the throes of a struggle over its future status. Located just south of Iraqi Kurdistan, the oil-rich city was "Arabized" under Saddam Hussein, only to be reclaimed after the war in 2003 by Kurds looking to annex it to their semiautonomous province. Neighboring Turkey is watching on nervously as Iraq’s Kurds assert themselves politically and angle to take control over Kirkuk, something Ankara fears may mark a first step toward an independent Kurdish state. Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiite nationalists, fearing an eventual split-up of Iraq, say Kirkuk is home to Arabs as well as Kurds and thus should not be incorporated into Iraq’s autonomous region of Kurdistan. They accuse Kurds of forcibly driving Sunni and Shiite Arabs out of their homes. The Iraqi constitution mandates a citywide referendum on the status of Kirkuk by December 2007, a poll predicted to favor the Kurds. Yet until its status is finalized, Kirkuk will remain what former U.S. diplomat Peter Galbraith calls in his new book, The End of Iraq, a "ticking ethnic time bomb."

Who lives in Kirkuk?

Between the 1970s and 2003, Saddam uprooted more than 100,000 Kurds in his efforts to Arabize the city. Kurds claim, stretching back to the late nineteenth century, they historically made up three-quarters of the population of Al-Tamin province around Kirkuk. Ethnic Turkmen point to a 1957 census that showed they made up a plurality of the city’s population, while the surrounding province was majority Kurdish. Sunni-Arabs, meanwhile, cite a 1997 census that showed Arabs—both Shiite and Sunni—made up 58 percent of the city’s population (some experts say the data is faulty because Kurds ran the risk of losing their land if they did not identify themselves as Arabs). Since the removal of Saddam in 2003, hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Kurds and Turkmen returned to Kirkuk to reclaim their lost properties or reside in camps on the eastern fringe of the city. Some experts say their motivation is to rebalance the city’s population in preparation for the December 2007 referendum. Most experts say Kurds now make up a clear majority and retain control over most of the city’s important political posts (because of a ruling allowing around 70,000 displaced Kurds to vote despite not residing in the city).

Why do the Kurds want Kirkuk?

Kurds want to reclaim Iraq’s third largest city for economic as well as sentimental reasons.

  • Economic. Kirkuk is home to one of the world’s largest oil fields, which began production in the 1930s and by some estimates holds as much as 10 billion barrels (though some project this figure is much lower because of infrastructure damage due to past UN sanctions). The region around Kirkuk accounts for as much as 40 percent of Iraq’s oil production and 70 percent of its natural-gas production. At the moment, Kirkuk’s oil is nominally controlled by the Iraqi oil ministry. But two new exploration deals in Kurdistan remain under the control of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Peter Khalil of the Eurasia Group says the Kurds face logistical problems. "Even if the Kurds had Kirkuk, how will they get all that oil out of a country, which is [largely] landlocked? Through the south [of Iraq]? Turkey?" Ankara wants to prevent the current pipeline, which stretches from Kirkuk to Ceyhan, a port city in Turkey, from falling into the hands of Iraqi Kurds.
  • Sentimental. "To the Kurds, Kirkuk is not about oil," says Tanya Gilly, adjunct fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. "It has more of a sentimental value. It’s the place of their ancestors that they want to go back to." Kurds have long claimed Kirkuk as part of Kurdistan (the 1992 Kurdistan constitution enshrines this principle as well). "We consider it an integral part of Kurdistan’s cultural legacy and history," says Howar Ziad, a Kurd and Iraq’s ambassador to Canada. Some even refer to the city as "our Jerusalem" and the historic "heart of Kurdistan," envisioning a day when Kirkuk will become the capital of their breakaway republic.

Who opposes Kurdish control of Kirkuk?

  • Turkey. Ankara’s primary concern is that the oil riches of Kirkuk will only spur the Kurdish Regional Government to seek greater autonomy, which may spill over into its own borders and spark unrest among Turkey’s own 12 million Kurds. "The Turks believe this is an existential issue for them, given their large Kurdish population on the border with Iraq," says CFR Fellow Steven Cook, speaking at a June 22 CFR meeting on U.S.-Turkish relations. "The Turkish general staff is clearly, clearly concerned, as is the Turkish government." Turkey threatened Iraq’s Kurds with military action in 2003 if they tried to incorporate Kirkuk into Kurdistan. Turkish intelligence supplied a now-defunct segment of the city’s ethnic Turkmen community with money and arms, according to Galbraith. In recent months, Ankara has deployed some 200,000 troops to its Iraqi border not just for counterterrorism operations against the PKK—a Kurdish separatist group—but to deter Iraq’s Kurds from pushing for greater autonomy.
  • Iraqi Arabs. Sunni and Shiite Arabs from Iraq accuse Kurds of overstating their claim to Kirkuk as well as "reverse ethnic cleansing" by displacing some of the city’s Arab residents. "Whether the Arabs are saying ’we just don’t want to stay here anymore,’ or they’ve been physically forced out is difficult to say," Khalil says. "But Kurds are changing the reality on the ground with the return of these refugees." Under Article 58 of the 2004 Transitional Administrative Law, Iraq’s interim constitution, Kirkuk’s Arabs who hand over properties to Kurds are eligible for relocation funds. But some remain homeless and accuse the Kurds of intimidating and carrying out retaliatory killings and kidnappings. "The Kurds are bringing people in who have never lived here before," Mohammed Khalil Nasif, an Arab member of Kirkuk’s provincial council, recently told the Los Angeles Times. "And they say in camps and government offices and say, ’We are oppressed.’" The repatriation has created tension and sparked brief bouts of violence in the city. "Kirkuk’s a flashpoint," Khalil says. "If there’s not a consensus reached by all parties, things could turn very ugly."
  • Moqtada al-Sadr. The anti-U.S. Shiite cleric is against the breakup of Iraq because a large segment of his support comes from Shiites in Baghdad’s slums and because of his Iraqi nationalist leanings (he enjoys close ties with the Dawa Party, the nationalistic party of Iraq’s prime minister). In April, Sadr sent hundreds of members of his militia, the Mahdi Army, to Kirkuk. His stated reasons were to protect the city’s mosques and Shiite Muslims—who comprise just 5 percent of the population—in the wake of the February bombing of the Askariya shrine in Samarra. But experts suspect Sadr may be seeking to stir up sectarian tensions to defeat next December’s referendum on Kirkuk. Although the Mahdi Army is accused of some kidnappings, Khalil says it poses no significant threat to the city’s Kurds for the moment.

What is the U.S. policy on Kirkuk?

Washington has refused to confront the Kurds directly on the issue of Kirkuk and has played a hands-off role. Nor has the United States bended to the will of Turkey, another major U.S. ally in the region. Ankara has lobbied Washington, unsuccessfully so far, to use its power in Iraq to delay the referendum on Kirkuk’s status or expand the vote to include all Iraqis, not just residents of Kirkuk. However, as CFR’s Cook points out, "Essentially the United States and Turkey are at loggerheads on this issue." Some experts say Washington should become more involved given the Iraqi city’s escalation in sectarian violence. "The Kirkuk question should not be deferred and cannot be solved by this constitution," Joost Hiltermann, Iraqi project director of the International Crisis Group, recently told the Turkish Daily News. "A major U.S. involvement is the only way to avoid violence." The U.S. military keeps a small security presence in Kirkuk (Al Tamin province, where Kirkuk is located, has sustained just thirty-seven U.S. casualties since 2003). The bulk of the security is provided by Kurdish-led police, at least some of whom are former members of the Kurdish militia, the peshmerga.

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