Kirkuk: Mine, yours, theirs or ours?

Evin Cheikosman

By Evin Cheikosman:


Kirkuk is a city in Iraq that has been a heated topic for internal territorial disputes, and the source for bitter relations amongst its old and new inhabitants, for a very long time. Since the 1920s, when Britain created the country of Iraq; Kurds, Sunni Arabs, Turkmens, Chaldeans, Assyrians, and other minorities have disputed Kirkuk’s place in the country. Each group has and still does claim a sense of entitlement, each with stories of despair and ancestral history in the city. But why? What makes Kirkuk so great? What makes this city worth the decades of debate and violence?

Well here’s a list:

  1. It serves as the center of the northern Iraqi petroleum industry and is thus economically and strategically important to the Iraqi government.
  2. It contains approximately 10 percent of Iraq’s gas and oil reserves.
  3. Kurds have a symbolic attachment to the city, which they regard as their own little “Jerusalem”.
  4. Kirkuk is important to Turkey, which fears that if Kirkuk were to become a part of Iraqi Kurdistan, this would further encourage Kurdish separatist sentiment in its Kurdish dominated Southeastern region. However, this is a fear that all countries with large Kurdish populations fear. The potential for regional instability is a huge fear for countries like Iran, Iraq and Turkey.
  5. Many goods and services are generated here, as well as natural resources.
  6. It is revered as an ancient homeland to its older inhabitants.

The list can go on of course but this just goes to prove how much is at stake for each opposing party.

According to the UN, current estimates range to just over 900,000 people in Kirkuk. Of these 900,000 people, over half are estimated to be Kurdish; Arabs and Turkmen make up about 35% and 12% and other minorities represent the 1%. With such a mix of ethnic groups, it’s no wonder that we see these rivalries and battles for full territorial possession. But to which group does Kirkuk really belong? If one group has more of a historical attachment to the city does that make it right for everyone else to just leave their homes and be labeled strangers/intruders/aliens?

Very Brief History

Iraq was established in 1921 which, at that time, led to the discovery of the vast quantities of oil and other natural resources in the region. The economic prospects caused problems as the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein escalated inter-ethnic tensions and prejudice. This led to an exclusionist and alienating policy, which materialized into Saddam’s genocidal campaign of Arabisation and “Anfal.” The Kurds, Assyrians, and Turkmans suffered greatly from these campaigns, as three of the dominating groups at the very beginning of Kirkuk’s existence who were perceived as threats to Saddam’s Ba’ath Party dominance in Iraq. In 1971 the national congress of the Ba’ath Party made Kirkuk an Arab city. This went against Article 5 of the provisional constitution of 1970 that gives national and legal rights to all ethnic minorities in Iraq. This campaign of Arabization changed all education in Iraq to be taught in Arabic. Kurdish and Turkman schools were closed, everything in the cities were switched to the Arabic language, Kurds and Turkman were forced out of Kirkuk to the south of Iraq so as to “Arabize” the demographic status of the city, Kurds and Turkman were forced out of their homes and replaced by new Arab settlements for Arab families, and the list continues. However this Arabization campaign did not stop there.

During the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, because of Iraqi Kurdish affiliation with Iranian forces, Saddam Hussein unleashed policies of all-out genocide. This is known as Anfal, which claimed the lives of 100,000 to 200,000 Iraqi Kurdish civilians. When northern Iraq became an autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, Kirkuk continued to go through expulsions of about 1000 Kurds a month until 2003. According to various sources, from the beginning of the Ba’ath party’s reign in 1968 until the fall of Saddam in 2003, an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people, the majority Kurds, were expelled from the Kirkuk region. This drastically changed the demographics of Kirkuk.

Since then a “stay-put” policy has been implemented for the Arabs that were sent to live in Kurdish, Assyrian, and Turkman homes, and article 140 of the new Iraqi constitution necessitated a three stage process: normalization, census, and referendum. Basically this meant that internally displaced people would return to their homes and recover the property that was taken from them. The set deadline was December 2007, however the deadline expired and until today it is stalled. Of course the issue of normalization is very complicated and disputed by the Arabs living in Kirkuk.

It’s really difficult today because the men and women who were sent to live in the homes of the first inhabitants are old or have already passed away and now their children and their children’s children live in these homes, and thus obviously regard these homes as their own. So when they are faced with these Kurds or Turkman, for example, who are adamant about the normalization process in the Iraqi constitution and want to take back their ancestor’s homes and property, there grows the conflict and bitterness between Arabs and the first inhabitants that we see today.

Saddam Hussein’s Gift to 2014

Today, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) are the two main parties in Kirkuk city. However over time they both have gradually separated due to political disagreements and they are currently competing with each other to win over Kirkuk’s more than 841,000 voters in this month’s parliamentary and provincial elections. However according to sources everywhere, it is said that the Kurdish parties’ success in winning the votes of non-Kurdish groups is not going to be a piece of cake. The KDP and the PUK are up against fierce Arab groups like the Arabic Coalition of Muhammad al-Tamimi, Iraq’s current Minister of Education.

In fact, just recently Al-Tamimi stated that Kurdish candidates do not stand a chance among Arab voters who are determined to keep Kirkuk as an Iraqi city (Rudaw). Kurds believe that Kirkuk has been and is part of Iraqi Kurdistan and their goal is to “take it back.” So of course, winning the votes of Arabs, the people who now live in Kirkuk, is going to be a challenge. We will just have to find out on April 30th when the elections are set into place. However, that will not end the conflict and strife between ethnic groups, the Baghdad Central Government, or the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). This territorial dispute has developed and escalated over many years, so no matter the “solution” that is implemented, one or two groups will not be happy.

What Do You Think?

I would argue that neither the Kurds nor the Arabs, since these two groups are basically the dominant players in this battle, should “have” Kirkuk. Each group has their history with the city and it would not be fair to commit the same mistake made before and kick a people out. If anything, why not make Kirkuk a sovereign city-state under Iraqi protection. An entity like Monaco, Andorra, or the Basque region; separate from the “mother country.” By this manner all identities can (hopefully) live alongside each other to some capacity. Or maybe divide the city in half, reach a compromise. But I am not in favor of throwing one group under the bus just because another one claims entitlement and superiority. Both sides have to be understood and respected; after all, each of our stories is just as important and valid as the next person’s.

This is a very complicated issue and one that I am sure each person has an opinion about. The Kurds firmly believe that Kirkuk is theirs and want to take it, the Arabs are insistent that it is an Arab city and will do anything to keep it that way, the Turkman are just as frustrated, and the rest of the minorities are pulling at the reigns trying to get a say. So what is your say? Who is the rightful owner of this city? Does it really belong to anyone given its multicultural beginnings? What is the solution?

Evin Cheikosman is a Kurd living in Los Angeles, CA, A recent graduate in International Politics from the University of California, Santa Barbara, she has studied abroad in Berlin, Germany and will soon be traveling to Zhuhai, China on a teaching assignment. Thereafter she will be pursuing a masters degree in foreign affairs. During her free time, Evin posts facts and opinions concerning Kurdish politics on her blog: Minority Politico

2 Responses to Kirkuk: Mine, yours, theirs or ours?
  1. Kuvan Bamarny
    April 26, 2014 | 12:33

    Historically speaking,the problem is, whichever group or ethnicity have taken control over Kirkuk ,have used their resources for the prosperity of their own lives and at the same time have misused the income of its rich resources to destroy the lives and identity of those who are ideologically ,racially ,religiously ,culturally are different than them.

    Kurds do not have the history of misusing the incomes of kerkuk`s rich resources against the none-kurds.Would this mean Kurds deserve a chance to take over the management of kerkuk ?

    The solution to the problem of kerkuk in my opinion is, since the record of Kurds are clear I believe YES they should,and the outcome of their management and work would decide wheather Kurds would handle a better management or repeat the same mistakes as other ethnicities have done it before.

    • Adan Direj
      April 26, 2014 | 21:16

      Excellent write up by Miss. Cheikosman. A very analytic and diplomatic approach to the issue that is so relevant to our politics today. I agree with Kuvan. Kirkuk is Kurdistan and always be ours. Kurds i think will handle it better. Just look at the prosperity growing in Iraqi Kurdistan. Its inevitable and we have the right to take back what is rightfully ours.

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