A Beginner's Guide: Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, and the Surge for Kirkuk

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Following the dramatic ascendancy of the Islamic State in June 2014, with areas around Kirkuk falling to the militants, Iraqi troops and Kurdish pehsmerga forces collaborated to reclaim the lost territory. But this was not a reversion to the precarious status quo. The peshmerga moved into Kirkuk, lifting the Kurdistan flag on the provincial building.”  

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The history of Kirkuk reflects its heterogeneous multi-ethnic nature.  A name whose pronunciation indicates its Aramaic origin, Kirkuk is as old as the 3rd millennium BC. Its ancient citadel, on the east bank of the Tigris, has seen the rise and fall of the Akkadian, the Assyrian, the Parthian, Salgus, and Ottoman empires, as well as the Arab Islamic conquest of the 7th century.

Each of these rulers brought demographic shifts, but today’s Kirkuk was forged in the heightening of ethnic identities after World War I and the formation of the new Iraqi State. For the Kurds, Kirkuk is the “Jerusalem of Kurdistan”. For Iraqi Arabs, the city is “a microcosm of the state”, a “small Iraq”, with a pluralistic and diverse identity that transcends centuries. For Turkmen and the Chaldeo-Assyrians, this is their “ancestral capital”, although they still largely link this with a united Iraqi state.

From 2005 to Now 

Under the 2005 Iraqi constitution, Kurdistan was recognized as a federal region within the state of Iraq. Kirkuk, claimed by both Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil, was labelled as “disputed”, along other 27 territories. Article 140 called for normalization, with implementation by the end of 2007 through a census and “a referendum in Kirkuk and other disputed territories to determine the will of their citizens”. Both ambiguous and ambitious, the process never took place. Unrealistic in such a short period, the plan collapsed under bargains between Shia and Kurdish politicians serving their own interests.

Following the dramatic ascendancy of the Islamic State in June 2014, with areas around Kirkuk falling to the militants, Iraqi troops and Kurdish pehsmerga forces collaborated to reclaim the lost territory. But this was not a reversion to the precarious status quo. The peshmerga moved into Kirkuk, lifting the Kurdistan flag on the provincial building.  Those of the Kurdistan Democratic Party controlled governmental institutions and began export of oil, to which the Iraqi Government responded by cutting off the Kurdistan Regional Government’s share of the federal budget.

The Independence Referendum and Baghdad’s Response

The defeat of ISIS in Iraq’s second city Mosul this summer revived the prospect of reconciliation. Both Baghdad and Erbil hailed the military success as a turning point in their political relationship. The Iraqi Government agreed to re-activate the process under the 2005 Constitution, once the Islamic State was completely vanquished. But then KRG President Masoud Barzani, followed through with the independence referendum, including Kirkuk in the vote.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called for negotiations, but only on condition that the referendum’s result was cancelled. Unsurprisingly, the KRG refused and Baghdad declared its control of airports and borders. Spurred by victory over ISIS in Hawija, 45 km (28 miles) to the west, Abadi authorized the military campaign for Kirkuk: “We have only acted to fulfill our constitutional duty to extend the federal authority and impose security and protect the national wealth in this city, which we want to remain a city of peaceful coexistence for all Iraqis.”

On October 16, Iraqi troops — led by counter-terrorism units, and the army’s 9th armoured brigade, as well as Federal police and Shia PMUs — advanced. After initial resistance by the peshmerga of the PUK as well as by some KDP linked peshmerga, they withdrew from Kirkuk. Arabs and Turkmens welcomed the forces, but hundreds of Kurds fled to Erbil. Most of them returned the following day.

Next day, KDP peshmerga left the area from Sinjar in the north to the Nineveh Plains, where they withdrew from in August 2014 to let IS in.

Iraqi troops soon took control of most of other ‘disputed’ territories, in Nineveh, Salah al Din, and in Diyala provinces, meaning that in some cases, they were now at the 2003 borders, rather than those of June 2014.

Reactions of Kurdish leaders

Accused by some of “treason”, Barzani blamed the PUK: “the withdrawal of Kurdish Peshmerga troops in Kirkuk was [the] result of a political party's unilateral decision.”

Leading PUK members, including Iraqi MP Alaa Talabani, the daughter of the recently-deceased former KRG President Jalal Talabani, said the withdrawal was to prevent the loss of lives of Peshmerga forces. She then jabbed at Barzani: “We won’t sacrifice for the sake of stolen oil fields, whose money went to the pockets and accounts of individuals”, indicating the deep divisions among Kurdish political parties.

While negotiations and dialogue remain the sole and wisest option available, Barzani’s latest in a series of miscalculations does not guarantee stability. Nor can success in Kirkuk, following success in Mosul, long sweep away other issues for Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi: corruption, mismanagement, and political factionalism are albatrosses for Baghdad as well as Erbil.

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