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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.
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. In Kirkuk however, a shaky calm prevailed.
Over the years, however, unease grew as the peshmerga presence in the town solidified. The Kurds saw an opportunity in the 2014 march of ISIS across the region and virtually annexed the province as the Iraqi army collapsed. One Kurdish politician even said that Kirkuk is now a part of “greater Kurdistan.” Baghdad’s response, at least initially, was to warn of dire consequences.
Things have gotten even more complicated in the year since. Half a million Sunni refugees have entered the province, likely straining the delicate demographic balance, although it is hard to measure because the last census was in 1957. Most local Sunnis are terrified of ISIS and are worried about pro-Iranian groups coming into the town, and so accept the relative security of Kurdish control for now. But other Sunnis are less conciliatory. One prominent Sunni Sheikh has warned that, after ISIS is defeated, the Kurds must relinquish control.
As dangerous as things are, Kirkuk has not collapsed. The town is periodically attacked by ISIS, but it is not under permanent siege like the Sunni tribal town of Haditha. And in Kirkuk, Sunni relations with the peshmerga and Baghdad have never been bad enough to facilitate total ISIS control, as in Mosul. In part, that is thanks to the city’s much praised Kurdish governor, Najmaldin Karim, a man determined to stop the town from being torn apart. So far, he has been able to resist pressure from both Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, which is run by the KDP, and Baghdad to decide Kirkuk’s final status—that is, whether it will be part of the Kurdish region or not—in part because of his connections to the other Kurdish power center, the PUK, which has historical links to Iran and thus better relations with the Shia parties in Baghdad.
In comments following the retreat of federal Iraqi forces from Kirkuk in June last year, Karim was noncommittal when asked if increased peshmerga presence meant that Kirkuk was moving closer to the Kurdish region. The PUK has typically been less assertive on the issue of Kurdish separatism than its rival KDP. That means that there may be a chance that Baghdad and the PUK could come to a peaceful settlement over the city. The alternative is Barzani’s KDP trying to unilaterally decide the fate of the city—quite possibly resulting in annexation.
It is Karim’s other connections that have helped ease tensions between PMF fighters and peshmerga. He has met with Hadi al-Amiri, the head of one PMF group, the Badr Organization, to discuss these issues and has touted the idea of security cooperation. He has also used his connections in Baghdad to help forge a shaky consensus between Baghdad and Erbil to the benefit of Kirkuk.
In late 2014, Baghdad decided that the Kurdish region would be allowed to count Kirkuk oil among its quota to be sent to the State Oil Marketing Company (SOMO) as a federal export. In return, the Kurdish areas would get 17 percent of the Iraqi budget. Karim has said that as long as Kirkuk gets a percentage of the price of each barrel from Kirkuk fields, he can get on with reconstruction projects.
The Baghdad-Erbil oil deal was much touted at the time, but it has seemed to fall apart ever since. With oil prices falling, Erbil sees control of Kirkuk’s oil as being more important than ever. Kirkuk oil production constitutes 50 percent of current Kurdish oil exports, a critical amount for the small but oil dependent Kurdish region. It is from oil production that Kirkuk gets its much of its budget, some funneled through SOMO and some from the Kurdish region, which is symbolic of the delicate balance of financial and political forces that Karim must deal with.
For years, Kirkuk has put off a referendum to determine its final status, as was required by article 140 of the Iraqi constitution. It is important to finally call the vote.
Residents will face a choice of coming full under the authority of Baghdad, joining the Kurdish Regional Government, or remaining as a semi-autonomous area. No choice is perfect, but it seems that a degree of autonomy has benefitted the city; after all it is doing better than Mosul in neighboring Ninewa Province.
Whatever the people of Kirkuk choose, the oil issue should be decoupled from the disputed territory issue. It would be advisable for Kirkuk to continue partnering with the federal North Oil Company, invite in foreign investment, and form its own Kirkuk oil company to operate the oil fields in the province. In that scenario, Kirkuk would retain a better commercial position and would be set free from the KRG’s oil policies, which come with the liability of disputed oil sales at discounted rates via Turkey.
Perhaps the best arrangement would be a partnership with Baghdad as an independent region, working with the federal government to market its oil for local consumers, as well as using the Basra corridor to export its oil to Asian markets. Moreover, as a region, Kirkuk would enjoy its constitutional share of revenue as well the petrodollars. That would maximize its revenues, helping expand its local industries and increasing employment.
The alternative could see Kirkuk becoming an insurance policy to bail out the Kurdish region, which faces multi-billion-dollar debt and lacks a democratically elected leader. The sitting leader, Masoud Barzani, called for a referendum on independence soon after the peshmerga seized the province. And he has—since 2008—advocated circumventing Baghdad and selling disputed oil directly on the international market at a discount price with Turkey’s help. All of this struck the rest of Iraq as opportunism, and the oil shipments were deemed illegal by U.S. courts.
As it faces a decision, perhaps Kirkuk will spark a trend in Iraq’s provinces, as locals increasingly clamor for decentralization. Working now toward a truly federal system can both keep Iraq together and improve the country’s security and economy. As such, Kirkuk should be wary about joining a weak Kurdish region that cannot afford independence without Kirkuk oil, especially while it is run through undemocratic dynasty-like administrations. But time may be running out. Karim may be the man for the job, but he won’t be in office forever.