Tensions rekindle in Iraq’s oil-rich Kirkuk

Arab, Turkmen and Kurdish figures have accused each other of making demographic changes to fix the results of a future referendum.
Sunday 27/01/2019
Members of Iraqi security forces at an oil field in Dibis area on the outskirts of Kirkuk. (Reuters)
Bone of contention. Members of Iraqi security forces at an oil field in Dibis area on the outskirts of Kirkuk. (Reuters)

KIRKUK, Iraq - Tensions have resurfaced in the oil-rich, multi-ethnic Iraqi province of Kirkuk after a Kurdish party raised the flag of the country’s autonomous Kurdistan region over the building that houses its headquarters, drawing protest from the central Iraqi government in Baghdad.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, in a statement, criticised the raising of Kurdistan’s flag by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and asked that it be taken down from the building in Kirkuk.

Kirkuk is Iraq’s most multicultural province with a population that includes Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, as well as Chaldean and Assyrian Christians. In 2018, Iraq’s Central Statistical Organisation estimated the Kirkuk population at nearly 1.5 million.

Kirkuk is not part of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which controls Erbil, Dohuk and Sulaimaniyah provinces. However, Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution stipulates that the fate of Kirkuk should be determined in a referendum by its residents.

“Having a referendum would give the choice to the residents of Kirkuk if they wanted to be part Kurdistan or remain under Baghdad’s rule,” said legal expert Tariq Harb.

Arab, Turkmen and Kurdish figures have accused each other of making demographic changes to fix the results of a future referendum. They also disagree over interpretations of some codicils of Article 140.

Rival commentators disagree over whether Kirkuk is a reference to the city or the province. They also disagree on whether the referendum, which was to have taken place in 2007, is valid or expired.

Article 140 states that the Iraqi government should carry out a census and a referendum “by a date not to exceed the 31st of December 2007.”

Kurdish peshmerga forces, supported by US airpower, took control of Kirkuk when the Iraqi Army was defeated by the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014. After the defeat of ISIS, Iraqi forces reclaimed Kirkuk from Kurdish control in October 2017.

The central government’s renewed control of Kirkuk came after a souring of relations between Baghdad and Erbil over the decision by the KRG to have a referendum in September 2017 on Kurdistan independence. Baghdad viewed the referendum as illegal and imposed sanctions on the KRG.

Tensions between Baghdad and Erbil eased after the KRG gave back the central government control of disputed areas that the peshmerga captured during the war on ISIS. Baghdad has since lifted the economic measures against the KRG and the selection of Abdul-Mahdi as prime minister of Iraq.

Abdul-Mahdi, unlike Haider al-Abadi, his predecessor as prime minister, has very good ties with KRG officials. However, the Kurdistan flag incident showed that Abdul-Mahdi will not compromise the sovereignty of the central government in dealing with Kurdish officials.

“Raising the flag by Kurdish political parties was aimed at taking the pulse of people in Kirkuk and putting pressure on Baghdad to resolve the Kirkuk issue,” said Emad Uglo, a 45-year-old resident of Kirkuk.

“The presence of oil in Kirkuk makes it wanted by the KRG. Although Baghdad is weak and has not formed a cabinet yet, the presence of Iraqi forces on the ground has prevented the KRG from dominating Kirkuk.”

Jalal Hasan Mistaffa, a researcher from Sulaimaniyah, said the issue of Kirkuk is not confined to Baghdad and Erbil but implicates neighbouring countries.

“Kirkuk is the centre of a strategic conflict between its components that has created a corner of regional instability that draws in Turkey, Iran and Syria,” said Mistaffa. “Iran’s support for Iraq’s militia allows Tehran to play a significant role in Kirkuk.”

Fatih Sangawy, a lecturer at the University of Human Development in Kurdistan, agreed. “Kirkuk’s issue will not be resolved due to the external influences. At the moment, it is impossible for Kirkuk to be part of the Kurdistan region,” he said.

“The city’s oil-richness is the cause of the continued conflict to control Kirkuk. As usual, ordinary people are paying the price at the end.”

The passion about Kirkuk, however, is not always about oil.

“It is about being able to reclaim your land and your dignity. It’s about knowing that you are not denied what is rightfully yours because of your ethnicity,” said Tanya Gilly Khailany, a Kurdish female activist.

“People were kicked out of the city of Kirkuk just because they were Kurds. People from Kirkuk were denied licences to fix their homes just because their ethnicity was Kurdish. They were not allowed to buy properties of any kind just because they were Kurdish,” said Khailany, in a reference to the Arabisation policy of Saddam Hussein.

Turkmen residents say they, too, were victims of Saddam’s Arabisation policies but add that the Kurds also discriminate against them. Kirkuk was originally a Turkmen city, they maintain.

Khalil al-Hadidi, a Kirkuk provincial council member who is Arab, said Kirkuk witnessed demographic changes before and after 2003. Hadidi accused Kurdish officials of seeking to change the demography of Kirkuk to make it part of the KRG, at the expense of its non-Kurdish residents.

The best solution, he argued, is for “Kirkuk to remain an Iraqi province.”