Kirkuk: Iraq’s perpetual missed opportunity

Kirkuk’s turbulent present and uncertain future is shaped by its political past as three groups vie for control in the city

Tires are burnt along a road north of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk on June 30, 2010, as Kurds protest against the local authority’s pending removal of their houses built on government land.
Tires are burnt along a road north of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk on June 30, 2010, as Kurds protest against the local authority’s pending removal of their houses built on government land.

Kirkuk: Iraq’s perpetual missed opportunity

One Kurdish protester has been reportedly killed in Kirkuk with seven others injured after being shot at by members of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).

Tension has been brewing in Iraq's long-contested city for the past week. Kurds had been protesting the closure of the Kirkuk-Erbil road by the PMF who objected to the handover of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) headquarters on 28 August, as mandated by Prime Minister Mohamed Shia al-Sudani.

Kurds vowed to continue protests until the road was opened and called on Iraqi leaders to urgently resolve the situation.

While this is the latest eruption of violence, it is not the first. Kirkuk, due to its ethnically diverse composition and complex history, has long been a powder keg.

Wander around the various neighbourhoods of the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk and you will be hard-pressed to spot any visible differences as you go.

From the northwest, where Rahimawa, Al-Shorja, Baroud Khana, and Imam Qasim have Kurdish majorities, to the historical centre in the Turkmen-Kurdish areas of Ahmed Agha and Haşirki, to the Arab quarters in the south and southeast, including Al-Qadisiya, Al-Uruba, Al-Shuhada, Al-Mandouda, and Al-Awal min Huzeiran, all are visually, demographically, culturally, and economically identical.

A picture taken on October 17, 2017 shows Iraqi and Turkmen flags hanging on the Kirkuk Citadel in the multi-ethnic northern Iraqi city.

Yet this is a city in the middle of a brewing political, security, and economic conflict between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the central Iraqi government in Baghdad. It has been fought over for years, with no signs of that tradition ending.

That squabbling may be taking its toll. The city looks tired and neglected, with little development, few job opportunities, and severe environmental pollution. Built on the banks of the Khasa River, a drying tributary to the Tigris, its historic castle is symbolic of its lack of maintenance.

Despite glimpses of local costume and the sound of local accents and dialects, Kirkuk appears to be a quiet, interconnected, and lively place, with no cultural, security, or class barriers. But this is only what meets the eye.

Staking the battlegrounds

On the surface, there are bitter arguments. Security, politics, and finance are all battlegrounds, as they have been almost since the birth of the Iraqi state. At its heart, the dispute is over the national identity of the city and the province, as well as the shape of its ruling system, affiliation, and political future.

Accurate and up-to-date population statistics are hard to come by, but the area has three sizeable minorities – Kurd, Turkmen, and Arab – with no majority. Optimists call it ‘coexistence’ but politically there is not much bonhomie.

A picture taken on May 8, 2021, shows a view of the ancient citadel of Iraq's northern city of Kirkuk.

For a start, there is a disagreement among the rural population over the ownership of agricultural land. The Kurds and Turkmen complain about systematic Arabisation (the process of adopting Arabic culture, religion, language, and identity by non-Arabs).

Kurds and Turkmen complain about Arabisation and their exclusion from the city's security arrangements. Arabs complain that the voting register excludes tens of thousands of residents.

There is also a conflict regarding security, with Kurds and Turkmen saying they have been excluded from the city's security administration.

Politically, there is a fight over voter registration, with Arab representatives saying tens of thousands who are entitled to vote in this year's election on not on the electoral roll.

These local ethnic conflicts are part of a wider battle for influence involving other Iraqi political forces. Analysts say the interested parties are not limited to Iraqis, either, with international energy tussles and the balance of forces within Iraq all agenda items.

New dramas every week

Days before arriving in the city, Kurdish and Turkmen farmers from the village of Tub Zawi in the city's south had blocked the main road in the centre.

A member of a veterinary team talks to farmers during a cattle disinfection campaign in Iraq's northern city of Kirkuk, on May 7, 2022.

They were protesting the city government's decision to build a military zone on their farmland, accusing officials of pushing a political agenda for demographic change and adopting policies reminiscent of the former (Baathist) Iraqi regime.

Only a week before that, there was another direct confrontation in the Sargaran district, northwest of the city, between Kurdish and Arab farmers. The Kurds were accusing Iraqi soldiers of implementing decisions in favour of Arabs who had recently moved to Kirkuk. 

The issue of property ownership is particularly divisive, given the effects of Arabisation policies in the 1970s and 80s pursued by the former Iraqi regime, which brought tens of thousands of farmers from southern and central Iraq and granted them properties in the Kirkuk province.

Kurds and Turkmen say judges and officials are being slow to implement the more recent constitutional articles requiring the removal of the effects of these policies, yet Arab farmers with title deeds argue that these lands belong to them according to recent judicial decisions issued by the Iraqi state.

Turkmen and Kurds respond that these judicial bodies are not impartial and do not use the laws and legislation issued after 2003, adding that the title deeds of Arab farmers perpetuate past policies.

The issue of agricultural lands is part of a larger problem related to property ownership in the city. Among the hot topics causing discord are residential properties, the granting of building permits, 'slums' built after 2003, and the status of people relocating to Kirkuk due to security concerns in their home areas.

Kurds and Turkmen say officials are being slow to remove the effects of Arabisation. Arabs with title deeds say the land belongs to them.

In the cafes of the old city — Al-Qorya, Ahmed Agha, Al-Majidiyah  — people from different areas gather after Taraweeh prayers to discuss property and warnings being traded between various political forces regarding the local elections. There is even talk about a possible new wave of violence.

A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter affiliated with Iran's separatist Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK), sits amid the destruction caused by a reported Iranian rocket attack near town city of Altun Kupri north of Kirkuk, November 23, 2022.

Arguing over electoral eligibility

The Kirkuk Arab community's representatives in the central parliament have boycotted voting in protest over the voter register, which was approved after 2003. They say it overlooks nearly 300,000 people living in the governorate.

These representatives demand the inclusion of Article 35 of The General Elections Law, which gives the Kirkuk Governorate exceptional flexibility and relies on other ID documents such as the ration card and the Ministry of Trade registers as a reference.

While Turkmen are relatively open to this, Kurds consider it a red line, because it would mean legitimising the settlement, housing, and Arabisation policies of the previous regime, thus embedding the demographic change that the Iraqi constitution is against.

The last local elections in Kirkuk took place in 2005. Kurdish parties won more than half of the 41 provincial council seats. Most Arab parties boycotted them for the same reason, and this remains an obstacle to holding new local elections, leading to today's impasse.

The provincial council elects the governor and other top provincial officials and supervises the local governance relating to property, education, agriculture, public real estate, and security to a limited degree.

Kurds claim that, despite the recent displacement and settlement processes, they still represent almost half of the total population of the province, yet their representation in administrative, functional, and judicial structures is much lower.

This is because public employees hired by the former government still control the management of public life. In 2017, then prime minister Haider al-Abadi exacerbated the situation by firing the elected Kurdish governor, Najmiddin Karim, for participating in an independence referendum for the Kurdistan region.

In Karim's place, Abadi appointed deputy governor Rakan al-Jubouri, an Arab. This led the Kurds to accuse al-Jubouri of being partial and tipping the balance of regional governance.

Rakan Said al-Juburi, the Sunni Arab interim governor of the oil-rich Iraqi Kirkuk province and candidate for the May 12 parliamentary polls, in his office in the northern city of the same name on April 30, 2018.

Constitutionally disputed

According to Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, Kirkuk is part of the disputed areas. This article is supposed to cancel the effects of Arabisation policies, conduct a population census in the province, and conclude with a referendum that determines its affiliation, either to the central authority or the Kurdistan region.  

Kurdish forces still adhere to this. They consider it fundamental to the stability of the province and to the relationship between the region and the federal centre. Their Arab and Turkmen counterparts, however, say its time has passed.

They argue that it is better to deal with the facts and share power according to the triangle system, which allocates each of the Arab, Kurdish, and Turkmen components 33% of the council members, with the remaining 1% going to the Christian minority.

When discussing the plan with the city's intelligentsia and elites, proponents emphasise the positive and cooperative changes to social, economic, and cultural relations between the residents of the city.

They also think the polarisation around Article 140 could be somewhat mitigated with transparency on the region's lucrative oil industry, defining exactly who is in charge. Either way, the zero-sum equation in Kirkuk must be ended, they say. Either it follows the centre in Baghdad, or it is a part of Kurdistan.

A picture shows a view of the North Oil Company installations in the province of Kirkuk, north of the capital Baghdad, on April 2, 2023.

Arguing over security

The city is hit with unrest each time these differences escalate. Most recently, an explosion targeting a leader of the Turkmen Front was blamed on (the Kurdish militia) PKK. It was interpreted as retaliation against Turkey, which supports the Turkmen Front and is at war against the PKK throughout northern Iraq.

At the same time, the Turkmen Front is concerned about Kurdish efforts to convince their governmental and Arab counterparts to allow the Peshmerga military force of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan back into the city, after it was pushed out in 2017.

The Turkmen are concerned about Kurdish efforts to allow the Peshmerga military force back into the city after it was pushed out in 2017.

The region is currently under the security control of the Joint Operations Room in Kirkuk Governorate. This is officially affiliated to the office of the Iraqi Prime Minister, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, and the Armed Forces.

In reality, it includes various Iraqi security and military institutions, including the army, intelligence service, Rapid Response Forces, federal police, Popular Mobilisation Forces, Peshmerga, Asayish (Kurdish intelligence), and Kurdish counter-terrorism units.

Turkmen say this is an exclusively Kurdish-Arab affair since this composite security-military conglomerate is devoid of any Turkmen presence. Meanwhile, local Sunni Arabs do not consider the Popular Mobilisation Forces to be representative of them, yet they are still preferred to the Peshmerga.

Kurdish political parties say that, because the Iraqi constitution defines the area as 'disputed', the security and military administration of the region should be shared between the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga forces.

They say this is the only way of creating a durable partnership when it comes to countering terrorism in Kirkuk, which is still very much needed, particularly in the southeast, where Islamic State units remain active in the Hamrin Mountains.

Fighting over the spoils

At the same time, Kirkuk's Arabs say they are deprived of the governorate's oil wealth and consider themselves poor compared to their Kurdish and Turkmen counterparts.

They say Kurds control vital economic entities, such as telecoms firms, and much of the cross-border trade with Iran and Turkey, which is controlled by Kurdistan, while the Turkmen are said to control much of the city's commercial centre, using networks linking merchants and companies such as suppliers of food, fabrics, and electrical goods.

Iraqi-Arabs demonstrate in the disputed city of Kirkuk calling for human rights bodies to shed light on the whereabouts of relatives arrested by Kurdish forces since 2003 and demanding the Iraqi authorities to investigate.

One rare point of unity is that all residents of Kirkuk complain about the economic marginalisation of their governorate due to continuing political and security issues.

One rare point of unity is that all Kirkuk's residents complain about the economic marginalisation of their governorate. Unlike in the Kurdistan region, there are no strategic plans to restructure the main cities in Kirkuk.

Unlike in the Kurdistan region, there are no strategic plans to restructure the main cities in Kirkuk, and local councils do not get the petrodollars approved by the Iraqi constitution for the benefit of provinces like Basra. Local politicians are accused of sharing Kirkuk's wealth among themselves, bypassing all ethnic considerations.

Also widely criticised for cronyism are the Popular Mobilisation factions, whose leaders are accused of controlling all government contracts and allocations, sharing them only with affiliated parties, including local ones.

Historically, Kirkuk was a leading commercial and agricultural centre due to the fertility of its lands and the diversity of its topography. Since the early 1950s, it has promised to be a centre of the Iraqi economy due to the huge oil discoveries in its lands.

Instead, it is a centre of poverty, unemployment, and the migration of educational and professional elites. It is Iraq's ultimate missed opportunity — an unfortunate, unwanted, yet stubbornly persistent epithet.

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