Kirkuk: A tale of many cities
• By Adam Lucente • May 4, 2018
On April 24, ISIS claimed responsibility for a bomb attack in an Arab neighborhood of Kirkuk that took place earlier in the month. The blast, which failed to kill a Turkmen Front candidate in the upcoming Iraqi elections, was one of many examples of ISIS activity this year in and near Kirkuk: Iraq’s most disputed city. After years of stability under Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) rule following the defeat of ISIS at the hands of the Kurdish peshmerga in 2014, Kirkuk has seen renewed violence since Iraqi forces swiftly retook the area in October 2017.
No matter whether it’s the Peshmerga, the Iraqi army, Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), or ISIS in power there, Kirkuk is a coveted city. Kurds call it their “Jerusalem.” Turkmen consider it part of their historic region. Iraqi president Haider al-Abadi sent his troops to greater Kirkuk before the other disputed territories during the battles following the September Kurdistan Independence referendum. It’s a province rich in oil in a country rich in oil.
The flag of Iraqi Kurdistan on the Kirkuk citadel following the September Kurdistan independence referendum. (Adam Lucente)
One Turkmen politician of Kirkuki descent, but living in Baghdad, described the city’s importance to Iraqis.
“Kirkuk has a lot of gas, oil and industrial potential. It’s a strategic plateau area,” said member of parliament Jasim Muhammad Jaffar. “This means everyone will always fight over it.”
Kirkuk’s current status as an Iraqi-controlled city still struggling with ISIS explains the current state of northern Iraq on the eve of elections: The Kurdish autonomy experiment has faltered, Iraq has not yet defeated ISIS, and Kirkuk will remain disputed for the near future.
Kurdish failures in Kirkuk
The Kurdish defeat in Kirkuk in October demonstrates the severely weakened state of the Kurdish region heading into the Iraqi elections on May 12. At first glance, it seemed disunity among Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Iranian support for the PMU, and lack of international support for the KRG’s statehood ambitions led to the KRG’s losses. The defeat was a stark contrast to the Peshmerga’s success vis-a-vis ISIS after 2014.
It’s also possible Kurdish officials overlooked the ability of the Peshmerga to hold on to the area before the October battle, as well as the Iraqi military and its allies’ increased strength since 2014. This miscalculation led the KRG to lose its most sought after location, and then others.
Kamal Kirkuki commanded Sector 5 of the Peshmerga’s west Kirkuk front during the Hawija offensive against ISIS in September, where the Peshmerga worked with Iraqi forces. At the time, he downplayed Iraq’s potential to retake Kirkuk and its eponymous province.
“Now they’re making some success in Mosul because of the support of the coalition,” said Kirkuki, referring to the U.S.-led alliance against ISIS. “Without the coalition, they can’t do anything.”
He wasn’t alone in his thinking. Weeks before the recapture, some KRG and Peshmerga officials in and near Kirkuk dismissed the idea that there would be clashes between them and Iraqi forces, not believing Iraq would, or could, win there.
Clearly, the Iraqi military of today is a far cry from 2014 when they laid down their weapons and ran from ISIS. However, few people in power in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq seemed to think this at the time of the referendum. After Kirkuk, more territorial losses followed, with Kurdish soldiers caugtht off guard. The Peshmerga quickly lost Makhmur, the Rabia border crossing with Syria, Sinjar, and more soon after.
Now, independence seems far off. Abadi’s electoral list may very well win heading into voting, and Kurdistan has been gripped by protests against the regional government. These failures of the KRG to put forth a viable path to independence all manifested with Kirkuk and Kurdish leaders’ inability to foresee both Iraq’s increased power and their own weaknesses.
Iraq versus ISIS
For their part, Iraqi forces were understandably upbeat following ISIS’s defeat in Mosul and leading up to the Iraqi victory in Kirkuk. The leader of the PMU in Kirkuk spoke confidently in September in the days before the battle.
“In the three years since we started fighting Daesh, we haven’t lost any fights,” said Muhammad al-Musawi, who is also Turkmen, days after the Kurdistan independence referendum – using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. “We’ve proven ourselves powerful enough.”
However, it’s possible Iraqi forces underestimated ISIS’s ability to wreak havoc in the country following Iraq’s victories against the Kurds. As events after the Iraqi victory in Kirkuk show, ISIS has not been rooted out from the area.
Most reported ISIS activity recently has been in the Kirkuk province, but not the city itself. In February, ISIS killed 27 PMU members near Kirkuk. In April, ISIS killed two people on a road south of Kirkuk. Iraqi forces also clashed with the group that month, and the PMU announced it had discovered tunnels ISIS was using to move weapons near Hawija in May. All these events came after Abadi declared victory over ISIS in December. Such activity does not indicate a defeated group.
To whom does Kirkuk belong?
Kirkuk’s disputed status is unlikely to change. The claims to the city go way back in the modern era. Many Kurds in the area believe Kirkuk is a historically Kurdish city, despite international borders saying otherwise.
“Kurdistan starts from the Hemrin mountain,” said Kirkuki on the Hawija frontlines, referring to the mountain range south of Kirkuk.
Like other Kurds around the time of the referendum, he argued that the European-drawn borders of the Middle East unjustly did not give the Kurds a state.
“Sykes Picot put all these things together,” he said. “They ignored the Kurdish voice.”
Many Kurds dismiss Iraqi claims to Kirkuk, especially following Iraq’s defeat at the hands of ISIS there in 2014.
“It is not logical to say to the running away army, ‘take this area,’” said Kirkuki.
Other people from Kirkuk, such as those from the Turkmen community, tell a different story. Jaffar said Kirkuk is a historically Turkmen city, and only has a large number of Kurds because of population transfers.
“They changed the state of Arabization to Kurdification,” he said just before the October 2017 battle – referring to Saddam’s movement of Arabs to the city, and the influx of Kurds following the 2003 invasion.
There is no significant Turkmen nationalist movement, but Jaffar and his supporters adamantly want Kirkuk to remain part of Iraq, and not return to the KRG. Jaffar offered a different view on Kurdish rule in the city, saying that Kurds were the ones trying to change the city’s demographics.
“The Kurds are trying by any means, ethical or not, to try and take over Kirkuk and expel all other people living in the city,” he said before the Peshmerga surrendered.
Jaffar was pleased when Kirkuk came under federal control again, and Turkmen media posted jokes about Kurdish politicians afterwards, indicating their delight. Kirkuk is an integral part of Turkmeneli – the name Turkmen give to their historic areas in northern Iraq. However, their perspective is given little coverage in Western media.
Besides Turkmen and Kurds, there are also Arabs and Assyrians living in Kirkuk. Neither group claims to be a majority in the city, and their populations are smaller than those of the Turkmen and Kurds.
The Kurdish flag was a common sight in Kirkuk before the referendum, as were various Shia flags, Iraqi flags, and Turkmen flags. When Iraqi forces retook Kirkuk, they took down Kurdish flags, including the one on the citadel, replacing that one with Iraqi and Turkmen flags.
Kirkuk’s status is not settled today, and it remains a sore point between Erbil and Baghdad. After reports that Peshmerga units would coordinate with Iraqi ones to fight ISIS there, Peshmerga officials denied any working together was taking place, as did Abadi. Thousands of Kurds were displaced from the city after October, and are living in other parts of the Kurdish region.
Iraq has made tremendous gains since the bloodshed following the U.S. invasion, but it remains divided, as is seen with Kirkuk. Given the city’s strategic significance, Iraq won’t achieve national unity until the Kirkuk issue is resolved. Neither side of the conflict wants to relinquish their claims in this climate. For Al-Musawi, the religious conviction of the PMU will enable them to stay in Kirkuk no matter what.
“We think we’re the right ones to defend Kirkuk,” he said. “We have faith in our ideology and believe Daesh is wrong. We come from Hussein.”
"Yes to the oneness of Iraq," painted on the wall of an old Iraqi army base near Kirkuk. (Adam Lucente)