Ako Rasheed / Reuters Soldiers march during their graduation ceremony at a military base in Kirkuk, 155 miles north of Baghdad, February 29, 2012.

Iraq's Jerusalem

Kirkuk Could Hold the Keys to the Middle East's Problems

Kirkuk has a long history of trouble. A town of almost one million people in a province that jabs into the heart of the Iraqi Kurdish territory, it was once a staging area for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s campaigns against the Kurds. That fight was briefly joined by one Kurdish party, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), in its bitter battle with the other, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). And before Saddam came to power, Kirkuk’s oil refineries were attacked by Kurdish insurgents.

No wonder, then, that the Kurdish former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani famously described the apparently doomed city as “our Jerusalem”—a town claimed by many. And these days, the number of claimants has expanded. There’s still the KDP and PUK, which both field the peshmerga, but now there are also the Shia Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) and holdouts from the so-called Islamic State (also known as ISIS).

Yet through it all, Kirkuk has been surprisingly resilient.

COMPLICATIONS

Talabani was perhaps right in that Kirkuk is as complicated as Jerusalem. The oil-rich town’s identity is defined by its three main communities: Arabs, Kurds, and Turks. From the 1970s to the 1990s, Saddam tried to erase that diversity through an Arabization campaign, in which Sunni Arabs were given incentives to move to the region, where they joined another recent Arab population that had ventured there to capitalize on the province’s oil rush.

Following regime change in 2003, Kurds were quick to settle the score, evicting Sunni Arab families from their homes. Since then, there have been intensive mediation efforts and convoluted security arrangements, known during the United States’ time in Iraq as the Combined Security Mechanism. Used in disputed areas, the CSM brought together Iraqi, Kurdish, and U.S. command centers to coordinate patrols and avoid clashes.

The CSM nearly collapsed several times, almost leading to open conflict in neighboring Diyala in August 2008 when Iraqi government forces demanded that peshmerga leave a disputed area within 24 hours.

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