By: Sara Zeineddine
Kirkuk: Arab or Kurdish?
The city of Kirkuk has a long history of human inhabitance and conflict over its control. It is a city located in northern Iraq, which is well known by the whole world because of its oil fields.
It is claimed by both the Iraqi government as well as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of the autonomous Kurdish region. To understand more about Kirkuk, this article will talk about the history and the status of this historical city.
History of Kirkuk
Kirkuk was founded by the Sumerians in the third millenium BC. The city was an important region during the Babylonian time especially because of its arable land, which means that agriculture was very predominant and was the first source of wealthiness .
Kirkuk is a very old site, it is considered as one of the "oldest sites of continuous human occupation in modern day Iraq" (NGO COORDINATION COMMITTEE FOR IRAQ).
This region is "home to Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and a variety of Islamic, Christian and other sects" (DERZSI-HORVATH, 2017). As such, these different communities have different narratives of Kirkuk and by whom it should be governed.
It is said that Kirkuk has "long history of multiethnic relations and multiple waves of economic migrations" ( KNIGHTS, ALI, 2010). Back then and today, this situation caused a lot of tension and generated battles between these different ethnic groups.
This area is a very commercial and active city which is connected to other countries such as Iran, Turkey and Syria. In addition to this, Kirkuk is very rich in natural resources because of its oil fields.
The Iraqi government wanted to control the region due to its wealth since the annexation of Iraq in 1925. The extraction of oil in Kirkuk officially started in 1927, when Kirkuk was seen as "the principal oil production area in Iraq and a world class strategic asset" (KNIGHTS, ALI, 2010).
The fact that Kirkuk was wealthy meant that new jobs where created which attracted many Kurds and Arabs alike. These two ethnic groups had to stay in Kirkuk and were considered as economic migrants. This made the city active and rich, therefore it resulted in the growth of the population.
Status of Kirkuk Since 1925
Each ethnic group claimed that they had a long and deep history with Kirkuk. Everyone had their claims over the city and in order to stop that, the Ba’ath regime also known as an Arab socialist party tried to « extinguish » these claims by putting in place « forced migration, Arabization and Baathification » (JANABI, 2008). It resulted in conflicts and tensions.
Therefore, the Arab population started to increase in the region and the Arabization of Iraq begun. The Arabization policy was a brutal policy that slowly took place during the Ba’ath regime. It was the process of assimilation of the people in Iraq that were not Arabs or did not consider themselves as Arabs.
This shift of ethnic demographics has unfortunately caused a lot of violence and disputes between the different groups. Murders were committed against the Kurds and the Turkmen, and the expulsion of other ethnic groups that were not Arabs in Kirkuk. Ipso facto, the other communities weren’t treated as well as the Arabs.
This ideology caused the creation of a sentiment of nationalism. This nationalism became more and more dangerous.
In 1970, the Agrarian reform law took place. It was a process that was "discriminatorily applied to Kurdish and Turkmen land owners and redistributed to small Arab owned farms" (KIRKUK). This means that the lands owned by inhabitants from different ethnic groups had to give up their land and give them to the Arabs that owned farms.
Thus, a lot of discrimination took place. Arabs were considered as the most important ethnic group in Kirkuk and the Iraqi government wanted to erase the other groups. Some people left the city, because they wanted to and the ones that left and wanted to come back were forced to register as Arabs and not another ethnic group.
In 1974, a conflict exploded between the Iraqi military and the Kurdish forces. The Kurds wanted to take back the city because to them it was theirs to begin with. They were thrown out and humiliated, they couldn’t let that continue.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi forces had to fight to keep Kirkuk in their hands since it was a very important pillar in the Iraqi economy. The Iraqis won this conflict, especially because the Kurds didn’t have enough sophisticated weapons to win. The damages were heavy on the Kurdish side, with large numbers of casualties.
Status of Kirkuk Since 2003
After the fall of the Saddam Hussein dictature in 2003, some things changed. Arabs left the city of Kirkuk because they knew they "stood no chance of retaining their ownership or use of property if they stayed" (KNIGHTS, ALI, 2010).
After the fall of the regime and the American invasion, the Kurds took over Kirkuk and started to exercise their influence. They were reclaiming the land they used to live in and wanted to make it part of the Iraqi Kurdistan region.
Kirkuk became a "potential military lauchpad" (KNIGHTS, ALI, 2010) where Kurds and Iraqis kept fighting for the land. The Kurds considered that this city was their Jerusalem, making a connection with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This created a lot of tension between the Arabs and the Kurds which became a threat to the safety of Kirkuk.
The fact that Kirkuk is a multi-ethnic region caused many problems. Every ethnic group claims that this territory belongs to them and a region cannot be separated like a piece of pie.
Kirkuk was considered as the city that has a "point of dispute between the Kurds and successive Iraqi government for more than seventy years" (SAEED, 2017). After 2003, the Kurds who returned to the city after years of being in exile, saw some of their homes destroyed or occupied by Arabs. Some Arabs had to flee the city because of the return of the Kurds.
The article 58 of the Transitional Administrative Law states that the government "shall act expeditiously to take measures to remedy the injustice caused by the previous regime's practices in altering the demographic character of certain regions, including Kirkuk" (JANABI, 2008).
The article 140 of the 2005 Iraqi constitution was an extension of the article 58 and gave key ideas to find a resolution for this problem. It included the "normalization, census, and referendums in Kirkuk and other disputed territories to determine the will of their citizens by a date not to exceed December 31, 2007" (JANABI, 2008) .
This article was seen by different point of views. This, of course, makes it difficult to satisfy every community since everyone doesn’t share the same story and opinions. For instance, the Arabs were concerned with the increasing amount of Kurds in Kirkuk after the fall of the regime in 2003 and their will to take control over the city. They didn’t want Kirkuk to be part of the Iraqi Kurdistan area.
The Turkmen also had different opinions. Even if they shared the same ethnic background, their group was separated in different factions, which makes it hard to have one unique opinion. However, on the Kurdish side, most of them wanted Kirkuk to be a part of the Iraqi Kurdistan region and wanted the city to have a special administrative status.
Status of Kirkuk Since 2014
In 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) invaded Kirkuk and wanted to take control of the city. Because of all the violence that was happening, the Iraqi forces had to withdraw and without a second thought they left some of their military equipment in Kirkuk.
However, the Kurds couldn’t let that happen since the city meant a lot to them, they used the equipments left and started to defend the city. The Peshmerga also known as the Kurdish forces kept fighting even though it was hard and finally took control over Kirkuk.
They gained back the city and defeated the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Thus, the Iraqi forces didn’t do much to protect the city like the Kurdish forces did. Times Magazine declared that the "Iraqi forces desertion is a reason why the Peshmerga fighters can’t give back the city" (COLLARD, 2017).
In addition, the "peshmerga control of the disputed territories was not only an opportunity for the Kurds, it was a necessity" (MORRIS, WIRYA, ALA’ALDEEN, 2015). Therefore, they have the responsibility to defend the city.
Baghdad, the capital city of Iraq and Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan both claimed Kirkuk after the invasion in 2014, which resulted in the reemerge of the "Kirkuk status referendum" stated in one article, article 140 in the Iraqi constitution.
This referendum was considered primordial because no one was sure with the status of this disputed city. It originally had to take place in 2007, but it kept on being delayed.
This tension between these two groups was a threat to the stability of Iraq and Kirkuk. In addition to this, since Iraq was severely attacked by the ISIS and didn’t really recover from the invasion of the United States in 2003, the country was still very weak. Hence, any tension could turn into a war and destroy everything in sight.
Masoud Barzani, known as the former Iraqi Kurdistan region president form 2005 to 2017 explained that a referendum could solve the Kirkuk situation. Nevertheless, it kept on being delayed years after years since 2007.
Finally the Kurdistan regional governments settled a date to have a referendum: September 25th 2017. While everyone had their hopes high, it never took place. Today, it is said that if it worked, it might have put Kirkuk at risk and it could have created problems and violence between the different ethnic groups if the region was under the Kurdish government.
Furthermore, this referendum wasn’t the only solution for the disputed area. Since 2003, a lot of solutions were suggested to resolve the Kirkuk status issue. For example, the United Nations proposed a solution and it did not work. Especially because of the Kurds who didn’t want to share control of the city, like the Arabs and the Turkmen did.
The International Crisis Group suggested a solution as well but the Kurds didn’t share the same opinions. This solution consisted on giving the Kurds oil fields in the area while they had to give up their claims on Kirkuk. For this reason, it was rejected. It is hard to find a solution because "it is usually linked to the question of territory".
A solution won’t work but a compromise will, a "compromise in which all the parties will have to make concessions" (SAEED, 2017). Thus, the different ethnic groups need to cooperate, communicate and compromise to find a political solution. If there is poor communication, everything can escalate into a big conflict where there is no coming back.
In conclusion, Kirkuk has a long history of conflict and status changes. In order to understand the situation of the city today, we had to dig through its history.
This historic city, located in Iraq, shares an eventful past and present with different ethnic groups. Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and other minorities who all feel the same way about Kirkuk.
Today, the status of Kirkuk remains under the control of the Iraqi government, however, the referendum suggested in the 2005 Iraqi constitution in article 140 has continued to be delayed and has not taken place to date.
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