Oil-rich Kirkuk in northern Iraq is a province everyone wants. That’s apparent in the passionate language Kurdish commanders use when talking about winning it back.
“We will never accept Kurdistan without Kirkuk. We fought a lot for it in the past and we’ll never give up,” said Sheikh Jafar Mustafa, who commands a unit of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s military force, the Peshmerga, from his HQ in the city of Sulaymaniyah.
But in September 2017, two weeks after Iraqi Kurds voted a massive ‘yes’ to independence in a controversial referendum, the central Iraqi government swiftly seized control of Kirkuk – a lucrative revenue stream for the KRG – as well as other disputed areas.
The fate of the “disputed territories”, particularly Kirkuk, remains hotly contested. Kurdish commanders are adamant that Kirkuk is Kurdish and should be part of a future Kurdistan, the Iraqi side insists it should not, while long-marginalised communities are stuck in the middle.
Kurdish officials or commanders talking about retaking Kirkuk are living in a dream world, said Iraqi army Major General Sa’ad Harbia, speaking gently but firmly inside a sprawling Kirkuk military base. “Even if they see stars in the afternoon sky, they will not return to Kirkuk,” Harbia told The New Humanitarian, using a popular Iraqi idiom.
Shortly after Iraqi forces retook Kirkuk, many Kurdish families – the UN said “well over 100,000 civilians” by 21 October 2017 – took flight, fearing sectarian violence. Many returned soon after, but more than 99,700 people are still displaced in the wider province – including those forced from their homes by the so-called Islamic State group or subsequent fighting.
The Peshmerga commander, Mustafa, who refers to Kirkuk as “occupied Kurdistan”, blames sporadic terrorist attacks in the area on Baghdad’s failure to adequately secure the city from fighters loyal to IS, which holds no territory in Iraq but is still a threat. There have been scattered attacks by the remnants of IS in and around Kirkuk, including six explosions in one day during this year’s Ramadan.
Harbia heads Kirkuk’s Joint Operations Command, which includes forces from the Iraqi army, federal police, security forces, as well as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (the Hashd al-Shaabi), or PMF. It does not currently include the Peshmerga. He said his forces were working hard to restore security in the area, and had captured more than 120 members of IS since he took up the role in February.
Harbia said he had no problem with a four-governorate Iraqi Kurdistan, which excludes the disputed territories. “They’re not our enemy,” he said of the Kurds. “In the end, they are Iraqi like us.”
In addition to keeping Kirkuk safe, Harbia said one of his priorities was promoting good relations between the Iraqi army and civilians. “There are many ethnicities in Kirkuk and we treat them all the same,” he said.
But the Kurds and Kirkuk’s many minority groups – including Turkmen, Arabs, and Christians – have differing views on what the shift in power from the KRG to the central Iraqi government since 2017 has meant for their daily lives.
While some Kurdish politicians and citizens speak openly against the power transfer, Mohamed, a 25-year-old Kurdish translator whose father is a senior member of the Kirkuk police, said not much had changed for Kurds like him.
Mohamed, who preferred to give only his first name because he feared possible repercussions of speaking to the media, said life had largely settled back to normal in Kirkuk, and “now it feels the same as when it was run by the KRG.
“As a Kurd, of course I’d prefer it if the Kurdish government was in charge, but the Iraqi forces are not making any problems for us, so we can’t say it’s bad,” he added.
Several Turkmen – Iraq’s third largest ethnicity after Arabs and Kurds – told TNH that this felt like their chance to take their rightful place in society after years of marginalisation, first under Saddam Hussein, who ruled Iraq until 2003, and then under the KRG.
“Before, there were many Kurdish militias who treated Arabs and Turkmen very badly, said Arab-Turkmen engineer Ahmed, who also asked that only his first name be published. “For over a decade, there was no development in Kirkuk and all senior positions and contracts were given to Kurds.”
Riyaz Sarikahya, head of Iraq’s largest Turkmen political party, Turkmenali, also criticised the Peshmerga for giving Kurds preferential treatment, although he stressed that his disapproval was of the security establishment, not the Kurdish people. “The Kurds are our friends and we have no problem with them as colleagues in the political sphere, but we don’t want them working in security,” he said.
Sarikahya said Kirkuk’s Turkmen are still underrepresented in positions of power, although this may in part be because the Turkmen community has struggled to unite, being politically divided into seven main parties.
A more critical fault line running through its mixed Sunni-Shia community dates back to 2014, when some Sunni Turkmen joined IS and led the persecution of their Shia neighbours.
Beyond Kirkuk, ongoing neglect
Baghdad showed its commitment to keeping Kirkuk by swiftly reclaiming the income from its oil fields, some of the largest in the Middle East.
Within days of taking the city, British oil and gas firm BP was back in talks with a state-run oil company about a stalled agreement, and they inked a new deal this year intended to more than double production.
Work has also started on regenerating Kirkuk’s military airbase, converting one section into a civilian airport – a project expected to reduce residents’ reliance on airports in the KRG or on arduous overland travel from Baghdad.
But while Kirkuk city has benefited from investment from Baghdad, residents and officials of outlying towns told TNH they continue to be overlooked, even with the change of power.
Strategically located on the main Kirkuk-Erbil highway, officials in the Turkmen town of Altun Koprey (called Perde by Kurds) say they are still waiting for investment they were promised.
City councillor Modher Anwer Taher said the Baghdad takeover had meant “more freedom” for Turkmen like himself. Mayor Abdul Najmadeen Orjlou-Salahe agreed. “Since the [Kurdish] political parties left, we’ve been left in peace,” he said. “Turkmen and Kurds are working side by side, like brothers.”
But what the town really needs, Orjlou-Salahe said, is funding from Bahdad.
While Altun Koprey recently had its intermittent electricity supply boosted to 18 hours a day – after an Iranian company repaired a nearby electrical station – the mayor said it urgently needed money to improve crumbling infrastructure and support agriculture, the lifeline of the local economy.
“We need everything,” he said. “Schools, a better hospital, new roads, and farmers: they all urgently need support.”
Read the first instalment of this series:In Iraqi Kurdistan, reality bites as independence dream fades
(TOP PHOTO: Some Kurdish flags were defaced by Iraqi forces advancing towards Kirkuk in October 2017.)