Kirkuk, Oil and the Kurds

Before the end of this year, the residents of the city of Kirkuk (about 250 KM north of Baghdad) will partake in a referendum to choose their fate. At issue is whether the oil rich city will be annexed as part of so-called Kurdistan. The history of Kirkuk is emblematic of the greater history of Iraq: It is a city that has always been prone to invasion, has always been seen as a strategic point of defense against rival empires, is ethnically and religiously very mixed and, of course, has been both cursed and blessed by its enormous oil supply. In conforming to this narrative Kirkuk has once again become the focal point of strategic concerns and the current puppet regime in Iraq has agreed to “relocate” Arabs, by removing them from their homes, and “re-settle” Kurds in their place. Taking this action just before the referendum almost insures annexation and de facto Kurdish separation from the rest of Iraq.

Now, what is at issue here is not the resettlement of Iraqi Kurds in Kirkuk. It is no doubt true that during the 1980s Saddam Hussein engaged in what was known as an “Arabization” project. The Baa’th’s project relocated thousands of Arabs from the south into Kirkuk and likewise relocated non-Arabs further south. “Arabization” was largely an effort to consolidate Iraqi national identity by dissolving large concentrations of ethnic minorities in any particular area and spreading them throughout the country. Now, on a personal note I cannot possibly deny the Kurdish right of return while I wholeheartedly endorse the Palestinian right of return for example. The Kurds do, of course, have a right to return to their homes in Kirkuk, just as the Palestinians have a right to return to their homes in Palestine (but who is comparing anyway). What is at issue, rather, is not whether the Kurds have a right to return but whether Kirkuk is a “Kurdish city” and, by extension, available to the political creation that is “Kurdistan.”

As I mentioned before, the Baa’th regime did indeed initiate a demographic change in Kirkuk, but this political campaign affected all the non-Arabs of Kirkuk not just the Kurds. One of the problems with nearly everything said or done in occupied Iraq is that narratives have been simplified and their content maligned to fit particular interests. Assyrian, Turkish, Kurdish and even Armenian peoples were all affected by demographic changes in Kirkuk.

The city now known as Kirkuk was once vital to the Assyrian Empires of the 8th and 7th centuries BCE. With the emergence of Christianity, the area surrounding Kirkuk was home to some of the earliest Christian communities, as well as Jewish communities tracing their roots to the Babylonian exile. Just before the emergence of Islam in the 7th century AD, the city found itself caught between the consistently shifting frontiers of the Byzantine and Persian Empires. During the reign of the Arab caliphs in Baghdad from the 8th to the 13th centuries many ethnic Turks settled in the area and offered their military services to the Caliphate. And, indeed, Kurds coming down from the surrounding mountain ranges settled in the area in large numbers. What we have in Kirkuk is a city of splendid diversity-a diversity that is systematically being wiped out by the current regime in Baghdad.

Since the 2003 invasion of the country myth has taken precedence over history and Kurdish politicians have adopted the methods of that other myth-based nation-state in the region-Israel, to establish claims on the oil reach city. During the invasion, Kurdish peshmerga (militias) entered Kirkuk and established de facto control of the city. Since then, as has been reported by the Center for Research on Globalization, Kurdish militias have forcibly evicted people from their homes, engaged in murder, assassination and a slow ethnic cleansing. The first victims in this regard have been the Arabs. Since the Arabs there are largely associated with Baa’th policy they have seen little support from the regime in Baghdad. Less publicized has been the targeting of Assyrians and other smaller minorities in the region. But the largest group in the city-and the one that promises to be the most resistant to Kurdish aggression-is the Turcomen. Ethnically Turks, the Turcomen have lived in the area for over eight-hundred years and have strong ties to Turkey. It has also been widely reported that Israeli intelligence officials have been working closely with Kurdish leader and have established a strong foothold in the area. This development raises some serious issues about so-called Kurdistan acting as a staging point for Israeli operations in the rest of the country.

When we take a look at the rhetoric surrounding Kirkuk it would seem to come right out of an Israeli playbook. Kirkuk is now being called the “Jerusalem of the Kurds.” Or as one Kurdish writer put it, “Kirkuk has always been sacred to Kurds as Karbala and Najaf to Shiite Muslims and all other Shiite cities and towns. [sic]” In light of this supposed devotion tens of thousands of Kurds have been coming into Kirkuk to change the demographic reality “on the ground.” This policy very much resembles Israeli activities in the West Bank, where the Jewish settlers have been encouraged to settle in the contested area, explicitly to complicate the area’s status. It is no surprise that an area rich in oil has now become “sacred” to the Kurds. But is it or are the more general claims being made on Kirkuk warranted?

The truth is all modern discussions revolving around Kirkuk have been far more ambivalent in regards to the status of Kirkuk then Kurdish politicians are willing to admit. First, the negotiations of the Treaty of Sevres (August, 1920), the treaty that initially dismantled the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War One, included a proposal for an independent Kurdistan to be put to a plebiscite by 1921. This proposal was made at the request of a Kurdish delegation and did not include Kirkuk within its boundaries. This historical fact is quite important considering that it was during these formative years that the Kurds were closest to establishing a Kurdistan and possessed their greatest leverage in so doing. Secondly, it underscores how pathetic claims to Kirkuk as a “holy city” are. When an official census was conducted in the area in 1957, Kurds did not constitute a majority in the city. This is in 1957, well before Saddam Hussein or his Arabization policy.

Well these facts speak to the more complex truth around Kirkuk, the aggressive activities of Kurdish militias continue under the auspices of the United States and the puppet regime in Baghdad. But what is most disturbing is that the events concerning Kirkuk are just another testament to the ideology of institutionalised racism imposed on Iraqi society.

Since the invasion, the United States encouraged ethnic chauvinism and consistently hinted at dividing the country up into ethnic or sectarian sections. Should this policy continue, Kurdistan will become a small fascist state with a lot of oil, that will be busy oppressing its large, very large, minority population and begging the US for bases to “protect” it from its neighbours, who are “different.” And, of course, the US will gladly oblige, just as it does in the Gulf States because, after all, that is where the oil is.