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Manish Rai explains the importance of the Kirkuk area in Iraq, which is home to a variety of ethnic groups and religions. Rai highlights that while Kirkuk has always showcased Iraqi diversity, it has become a volatile area with the potential of being the main arena of a bloody sectarian civil war.

Kurds carry the official Kurdish flag as they celebrate in Kirkuk

Kurds carry the official Kurdish flag as they celebrate in Kirkuk Photo Credit: EPA-EFE

Iraq’s territories, which are disputed by both Baghdad and Erbil, have long been a primary source of contention between Kurds and the federal government. Among these territories, Kirkuk is most important one, and both Baghdad and Erbil have locked horns over it.

The oil-rich Kirkuk province lies outside of the official borders of the Kurdish people’s semi-autonomous territory and is home to Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and Christians. Baba Gurgur, one of the biggest oil fields in Iraq, is located in the province. Different ethnic groups like Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and Assyrians have conflicting claims to this city and all have their historical accounts and memories to strengthen their claims.

For instance, the Turkmen consider Kirkuk their cultural capital as it was ruled by Seljuk Turks for many years, and Assyrians look to Kirkuk as their ancient capital of Arrapha. Kurds, on the other hand, refer to Kirkuk city as their “Jerusalem,” the city they lost and aspire to get back. Moreover, historically, Kirkuk was also a point of intersection for Ottoman, Persian and independent Kurdish tribal interests and influences.

Kirkuk has always been a multi-ethnic vibrant city but now it has turned into the most significant unresolved issue in the country, a ticking time bomb, which can explode at any given time and result in bloody sectarian civil war. Violent clashes between Turkmen and Kurds in the Kirkuk city have already started to take place. Kurds are also very much determined to include Kirkuk in Kurdistan. Tamr Hussein, a Kurdish journalist based in Erbil, said the Kurds will never give up Kirkuk and they are ready to defend the city against any attack. Moreover, Hussein added that if Baghdad wishes to mobilize forces to retake Kirkuk by force, then the Peshmerga will respond appropriately.

In the past, Kirkuk used to be a primarily Kurdish city but due to the Arabization policy of Ba’athist Iraqi regime, the demography of the city has changed drastically. The process of Arabization included uprooting native Kurds and the settlement of many Arab families from other parts of Iraq in their place by providing large financial and economic incentives. But since 2003, after the fall of Ba’ath regime, the Kurds have returned in good numbers, and in recent years, they have consolidated their control over Kirkuk. 

A prominent challenge has also emerged for Kurdish security forces from the Shiite militias such as Hashd al-Shaabi (the Popular Mobilization Units) and Badr Brigade. These militias have a strong presence in Shiite areas south of Kirkuk and in the Tuz Khurmatu area in the neighboring Saladin province.

The growing threat of armed conflict and communal violence between the different ethnic groups of Kirkuk suggests that this is the high time for a mediated solution. First, the Kurdistan Regional Government, which controls the city, needs to build confidence between Kirkuk’s minority communities. This can be achieved by providing assurance that all ethnic communities will be treated fairly and will get a fixed number of parliamentary seats and their cultural and educational rights will be protected. Every stakeholder should understand that the Kirkuk issue must be resolved amicably through a political process, not through the use of force and coercion. And for any political solution to be successful, a strong political will is needed and compromises and concessions will have to be made by all the parties. Even the special status for Kirkuk within Kurdistan, like what Quebec has in Canada, can be considered. 

In the meantime, until there is a permanent settlement between Erbil and Baghdad over the future of Kirkuk, an interconnected approach to resources can be adopted, similar to the Jordan-Israel water pipeline, which will be mutually beneficial. Moreover, Kurdish and Iraqi authorities should realize that without resolving the issue of the disputed territories, most notably Kirkuk, it will be near to impossible for Erbil and Baghdad to have a stable relationship going forward. For Kurds, Kirkuk is not only a prized possession that can make them economically sound through its huge hydrocarbon deposit but also a huge crust of explosive, containing a variety of diverse factors and conflicting interests that could explode and destroy the Kurdish aspirations for independence if the Kurdish top brass does not handle the delicate issue cautiously, patiently and wisely.