In March 2017, the Kirkuk provincial council voted to raise the flag of Kurdistan over the city’s official buildings.
Likewise, Kirkuk and other disputed territories were included in Kurdistan’s September 25, 2017, independence referendum. The central Iraqi government and other regional powers, such as Turkey and Iran, condemned both the raising of Kurdistan’s flag and the referendum, but to the Kurds both decisions seemed historic.
Hoisting Kurdistan’s flag showed Kirkuk to be a Kurdistani city, and the referendum was supposed to create an independent Kurdistan, with Kirkuk as its Jerusalem.
The Iraqi government deliberately delayed the liberation of Hawija so that it would be able deploy a huge force for the fight; Hawija is a district of Kirkuk and only 45 km. away from the city. Iraq deployed a gigantic force to liberate Hawija, and cleaned it of ISIS forces without a fight. Then it started threatening the Peshmerga, saying it would attack Kirkuk if Kurdish forces did not hand over the K1 military base and Havana and Bai Hasan oil fields. The Kurds did not agree to hand over K1, and especially the oil fields because they were the source of Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) revenue.
On October 16, clashes between Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) and the Peshmerga started around 1 a.m. My brother, a Peshmerga fighter, was in Taza Khurmatu where the clashes were taking place, called me and said, “Come to Kirkuk and take your sister-in-law to Sulaimani because they (Iraqi forces and PMU) are bombing us and we are outnumbered.”
I immediately called my brother-in-law, who was in Tal al-Ward, a town to the southwest of Kirkuk. He told me that no clashes had occurred there. After hearing that, I thought the clashes might be small and would not last much longer. I woke up at 7 a.m. due to the sound of my parents talking animatedly. I asked them what was going on.
“The Peshmerga have withdrawn from Kirkuk,” my dad angrily responded.
Around 10 a.m., thousands of Kurds started fleeing the city as PMU and other Iraqi forces marched on the center of Kirkuk.
Frustrated by the conflicting reports coming out of the city, I decided to go there myself to see what exactly was going on. I visited Kirkuk on November 16. Approaching the checkpoint at the entrance to the city I was apprehensive, but the police officer at the checkpoint did not even ask for my ID. A tank and several Humvees were stationed there.
It was around 8 p.m. when I reached the city center. The city was very calm. Most of the shops were closed and few people were on the streets.
Before October 16, shops usually remained open until 10 or 11 in the evening, and the streets were crowded at all hours. It was surprising to see though that liquor shops were open, because Iraqi forces had banned these for many days. I asked the owner of one of these shops what time he opened, and he said from morning until 9 p.m. When I heard that, I realized that life in Kirkuk was getting back to normal.
I went to my cousin’s house.
My cousin and I went out at 10 p.m. to several districts in Kirkuk, including Rahim Awa, the Bazaar, Tapa and Kurdistan Street. There were Iraqi police and Iraqi anti-terrorist forces, but they were not hassling anyone.
The next day I traveled around the city, and things seemed pretty normal – shops, restaurants, cafeterias and gas stations were all open. I noticed however that there were very few Kurds in the city. Most of the people I saw were Arab and Turkmen.
When I went to Kurdish areas, I saw that most of the houses were empty.
Even though the Iraqi forces seem to treat Kurds decently, a good number of Kurds have left the city and have yet to come back, for two main reasons.
The first is that Kurds believe there is a threat to their lives.
The Kurds of Kirkuk are mostly PUK and PDK supporters, so if the Iraqi forces harass them, their parties have no power to rescue or protect them. PUK and PDK authorities cannot live in the city because they are neither able to have their guards with them nor are they able to carry guns.
The threat to PDK supporters is very real – the PDK buildings were bombed, for instance. Probably because PDK was strongly supportive of Kurdistan’s independence and has had a terrible relationship with Baghdad, and especially with Shi’ite leaders.
However, the situation seems better for PUK supporters as PUK leaders have strong relationships with Iraqi officials, especially the Shi’ite leaders.
I visited the PUK’s headquarters in Kirkuk. The building was closed and only two “PUK Peshmergas” were protecting it – but there were several Humvees full of Iraqi anti-terrorist forces stationed at the PDK politburo and Asaish Building.
The second reason is that Kurds are generally fearful of living under the control of Iraqi forces. From 2005 to 2015, uncountable numbers of explosions occurred as the federal police could not secure the city. I lost seven relatives in a single bombing in 2006.
From 2015 until October 16, 2017, no bombings occurred because the Peshmerga were protecting the borders of the city and the Kurdish Asaish secured the city itself. Consequently, the people of Kirkuk, of all ethnicities, enjoyed good security. Now the situation is completely different, especially for the Kurds.
The Kurds of Kirkuk do not go out at night because they are afraid and do not trust Iraqi forces. Before October 16, Kurds ruled the city, but now are treated as a minority.
Moreover, the city might face bombings and instability in the future due to sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shi’ite Arabs. For example, on November 5, 2017, only a few days after Iraqi forces and Shi’ite militias took control of the city, two suicide attacks targeted the building of Saraya Alsalam, a Shi’ite militia led by Muqtada al-Sadr.
Three days later al-Sadr ordered the militia to withdraw from Kirkuk.
THE KURDS of Kirkuk feel betrayed by PUK. Their main – and convincing – argument is that the PUK didn’t warn them it was going to withdraw from the city. Ceding control of a military base and oil fields is one thing, they fell, but allowing Iraqi forces to take control fo the city itself is quite another thing.
PDK leaders and supporters have also accused some PUK leaders of conspiring with Shi’ite leaders to hand over Kirkuk.
At the same time, many Kurds in Kirkuk also see PDK leaders as traitors, because they handed over Makhmour and Sinjar. As one person put it, “The PDK only cared about the oil, not the Kurds. If the PDK cared about us, why would they not defend us?” The Kurds are generally disappointed in both the PUK and PDK. I believe that both parties will pay a heavy price in the next elections in Kirkuk.
The Kurds are also concerned about the “volunteers” who occasionally attack Iraqi forces in the city.
Such activity, they think, is both ineffective and dangerous.
“Kirkuk will not be retaken from the Iraqi government by destroying a Humvee or killing two to three persons,” one resident told me. And such actions further destabilize the city, angering the Iraqi forces and inviting reprisals against the Kurds.
The last point that bears mention is the economic situation of Kirkuk’s Kurds.
Those employed by the KRG have moved to other areas in the KRI such as Sulaimani, Erbil, Chamchamal and Taq Taq, and are going through a hard time as KRG is paying them only half their salaries.
Almost all are renting houses that they cannot really afford. The Kurds remaining in the city, many of whom own business there, are also facing economic losses. Shop owners are not seeing the kind of income they used to see before October 16.
I spoke with the owner of a store in a Kurdish district.
He stated he used to sell IQD 125,000 ($100) daily, but now only sells IQD 30,000 (25$).
When I asked him what the reason was for the decline in business, he said, “Our clients are Kurds and they have left the city.”
As the history of Kirkuk shows, neither Kurds nor Arabs will ever give up on the city. Therefore, the conflict over Kirkuk must be resolved peacefully.
The author is majoring in international studies and minoring in law at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani.