Why Iraq's Kirkuk has reached brink of conflict / Fehim Tastekin

Plagued by the oil curse and long disputed between its ethnic communities, the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk is once again teetering on the edge of civil war, with local elections just three months away.

The crisis began when Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani decided in late August that the Iraqi military’s Joint Operations Command should evacuate its headquarters in Kirkuk and return the building to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the ruling party of Iraqi Kurdistan. 

The decision, intended as a gesture of goodwill to the KDP, ignited ethnic sensitivities and fears in the historically disputed, oil-rich city, which central government forces reclaimed from Kurdish control just six years ago. 

With Kirkuk heading to provincial council elections on Dec. 18, a rising KDP profile in the city irritated other groups, including the KDP’s main Kurdish rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

Deeper divisions

The row is linked also to Iraq’s complex political dynamics, which required Kurdish support to form a government in Baghdad in 2022. According to Iraqi media, returning the disputed headquarters to the KDP was part of the deal, along with other concessions to Kurds.

Sudani’s order triggered a protest by members of Sunni Arab tribes, Turkmen groups and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a Shiite militia within the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). On Sept. 2, Kurdish counter-protesters attempted to approach them, leading security forces to intervene. The ensuing violence claimed four lives, and a curfew was put in place.

In a bid to defuse the tensions, Sudani met with parliament members from Kirkuk and officials from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) the following day, while Iraq’s top court suspended the premier’s handover order.

KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani slammed the court’s suspension ruling as a “farce,” while KDP leader Masoud Barzani warned of a “heavy price” for the bloodshed. 

The building was important to the KDP for several reasons: It facilitated the control of oil wells, could be reinforced quickly from Erbil and enjoyed natural protection due to Kurdish settlement to the north.

But soon after Kurdistan’s independence referendum in September 2017, the Iraqi military moved into Kirkuk, forcing Kurdish forces to withdraw. The city’s Kurdish governor was removed and replaced by his Arab deputy. 

A Joint Operations Command was later established, incorporating members of the PMU, Kurdish peshmerga forces, the Kurdish intelligence units known as Asayish and PUK-affiliated anti-terror forces, along with members of the Iraqi army and security and intelligence bodies. 

Al-Monitor has learned that the KDP’s Asayish was allocated two rooms in the disputed building. Members of the PUK’s anti-terror forces were also stationed there. Yet none of the Kurdish forces have been involved in controlling the city. 

Sudani’s decision to hand the building over to the KDP sparked fears among other groups that the peshmerga will be returning to Kirkuk in force ahead of the elections.

History of Arabization

The Kurds strongly remember Baghdad’s Arabization policy in the 1970s and 1980s, which saw Kurds driven out and replaced with Arab settlers. The Iraqi Constitution’s Article 140 also calls for reversing the effects of the Arabization campaign before holding a census and a referendum on the city’s status. Article 140 stipulated a 2007 deadline for the referendum, but a vote was never held.

In 1957, Kurds made up 48% of Kirkuk’s population, followed by Arabs with 28% and Turkmens with 21%. While Kurdish populations dipped under Saddam Hussein's Arabization policies, based on recent electoral registers, the Kurds today are said to have grown back into a majority almost equaling the one in 1957. In the 2021 general elections, PUK candidates won three of Kirkuk’s 12 parliamentary seats, while the KDP won two. 

Though the Turkmens too have been victims of the Arabization campaign, they are opposed to Kirkuk becoming part of Kurdistan and maintain that the city is a Turkmen homeland. While the Kurds aim to incorporate Kirkuk into Kurdistan via a referendum, the Turkmens say the city should be given a “special” or “federate” status, with Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens getting equal shares in the administration and the governor’s post rotating between the three communities. 

Similarly, the Arabs believe Article 140 is no longer applicable. Chief among the disputes is the ownership of croplands. Arab farmers resettled in Kirkuk have been winning court cases against returning Kurds thanks to the title deeds they hold.

Sudani’s ties with the Kurds may sour, but he appears unlikely to move in their favor. Amid the unrest over the headquarters, Baghdad unblocked 500 billion dinars (about $380 million) for public salaries in Kurdistan — about half of the sum the KRG says is needed. Public anger over unpaid salaries and the bloodshed in Kirkuk triggered demonstrations in Dohuk this week.

Arab groups remain adamant that federal control of Kirkuk cannot be reversed.

Turkey, Iran vie for influence

Ersad Salihi, head of the Turkmen Front, meanwhile claimed that members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is designated as a terrorist organization in Turkey, and “terrorists coming from Iran” fueled the unrest in Kirkuk. In the same vein, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed “to not allow the calm and integrity of this region to be broken.”

Ankara and Tehran may converge on this issue, but they have become rivals for influence in Kirkuk. Tehran’s leverage in Kirkuk seems to have outstripped that of Turkey. The Turkmen card is now in Iranian hands thanks to factors such as the fight against the Islamic State and Tehran’s ties with the PMU and the Shiite section of the Turkmen community. 

As the provincial elections approach, Arabs and Turkmens want a review of electoral registers, which remain a major point of contention amid claims that fake documents have been used to register Kurds brought in from the north. Meanwhile, the KDP and the PUK plan to contest the elections on separate tickets, complicating Kurdish calculations to clinch the governor’s post. 

Erbil-based political analyst Siddik Hasan Sukru told Al-Monitor that KDP-PUK collaboration appears impossible, not least because of Turkey’s potential role. According to Sukru, Ankara might push the KDP, with which it enjoys close ties, to join forces with Sunni Arabs and Turkmens, and the KDP might back a Turkmen governor rather than one from the PUK. 

Iran, however, is unlikely to sit with folded arms and could seek to hamper Turkey’s calculations, Sukru said.


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