Spoils of Babylon

Spoils of Babylon

Mini Teaser: Kirkuk is about to bring Iraq back into civil war. The Obama administration is moving toward a settlement of this disputed region that will anger everyone.

by Author(s): Joost R. Hiltermann

  THE FATE of Iraq may well rise or fall on Kirkuk as Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and Christians grapple for control of the province and the safety of their people. Oil riches abound in this land that straddles the border of Arab and Kurdish Iraq. And command of these resources is the prize for the taking. As the powers that be in Baghdad fight to hold on to the tenuous peace wrested from civil war, deciding the political fate of Kirkuk is treacherous enough to bring down the state. So far, the battle has largely taken place in a never-ending political drama, but if compromise cannot be reached-and soon-bloody conflict may well be the next step.


I FIRST visited the Iraqi province in April 1991, driving up from Baghdad in an international humanitarian agency's car. At the time, I was working as a consultant for the Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights, assessing civilian conditions in the wake of the U.S.-led war in Kuwait and Iraq. I got far more than I bargained for. A resurgent Iraqi regime had just crushed uprisings in the south and north of the country brought on by the George H. W. Bush administration's encouragement of rebellion and promises of support. But the White House quickly backtracked, leaving the insurgents to face the wrath of Saddam Hussein on their own.


THE TELLTALE signs of recent conflict were everywhere I went in Iraq. Shops were aflame in the center of Karbala with tank-shell damage to the facade of the adjacent al-Abbas mosque. In Basra, manned antiaircraft batteries had been deployed in the middle of intersections, their guns trained at eye level. Throughout the entire country there was evidence of rocket fire on government buildings, and horrendous conditions in clinics and hospitals, with stories of corpses stacked in hallways and toddlers laid up in cribs, emaciated from lack of drinking water. Downed water-storage tanks and bombed power stations littered the landscape. In the north, overturned tractor-drawn carts of fleeing Kurds sat by the roadside, strafed by helicopter gunships. In the Sulaimaniya government hospital in northeast Kurdistan, a trickle of refugees was returning from the border with Iran, bearing terrifying land-mine injuries. And, in a hint of the vicious reprisals to come in the wake of the Kurdish rebellion against the Baghdad government, I saw a Kurdish insurgent (a pesh merga) being carried into a police station by two Iraqi soldiers, hanging upside down from a pole to which they had tied his hands and legs.1

In Kirkuk we spent the night on relatively neutral ground: the government hospital (we consistently found medical personnel to be apolitical and focused on immediate humanitarian concerns). There, we were fed by a handful of Egyptian workers and got our fill of useful intelligence on the local situation. Later that day, as we returned from Sulaimaniya, we passed through Shorja, one of Kirkuk's downtown Kurdish neighborhoods. Bulldozers were razing houses, piling concrete upon concrete. The regime was punishing a population for its participation in, and support of, the rebellion (which had lasted a heady few days) by expelling Kurds from the city and demolishing their homes.

As I learned on subsequent trips to Iraq, this was more than a "mere" collective reprisal. This was the latest episode in a long-running, ofttimes vicious attempt at ethnically based population transfer.


UNTIL RECENTLY, not many people outside the Middle East had heard of this northern Iraqi province, Kirkuk. Once a backwater of the Ottoman Empire far from the cosmopolitan centers of Baghdad and Mosul, for a long time the area presented a blend of ethnic groups-Assyrians and Chaldeans (both small Christian communities), along with Turkmen, Kurds and Arabs-who lived in relative harmony, frequently intermarried and commonly spoke each other's languages. The discovery of oil in the late 1920s transformed the town into a magnet for an impoverished peasantry, including many Kurds from Erbil, today the capital of Kurdistan, and Sulaimaniya, who flocked to the oil fields during the following three decades.

Ethnic conflict quickly came to the surface. The Kurds mounted a series of failed rebellions against the Iraqi government in the 1930s and 1940s, forcing their leaders to flee to the Soviet Union and Iran. And so it went until the 1958 military coup that overthrew the British-backed Hashemite monarchy and installed an Arab nationalist regime, changing the political equation and precipitating decades of fighting. Kurdish insurgents, long in conflict with the central government over autonomous powers, returned from Iranian exile to exploit the vacuum, but soon found themselves, yet again, in opposition to Baghdad's rule. Their rebellion was crushed in the early 1960s at a terrible cost in Kurdish lives and properties. It was then that Iraq's republican regimes began to Arabize the areas surrounding the oil fields, not just in Kirkuk, but all along a broad band of territory stretching from Syria in the northwest to Iran's border east of Baghdad.

After the Baath Party came to power in 1968, it pursued accommodation with the Kurdish rebel leader, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, who used the Kurds' temporary, relative strength to extract a significant concession: the creation of an autonomous Kurdish region. But both sides interpreted the autonomy agreement, and the shape of the autonomous region, differently, with Kirkuk as the core of the problem, and the deal soon fell apart. The Kurds reverted to insurgency and the foundation of the present-day battle was laid fast. The Iraqi regime was loath to surrender control of Kirkuk's "supergiant" oil field (which contains 15 billion, or 13 percent, of Iraq's 115 billion barrels of proven reserves) and additional suspected hydrocarbon riches permeating rock formations underfoot. The Kurds' allies, the shah of Iran and the Ford administration, withdrew their support in 1975 and the insurgency collapsed, but not before solidifying the long-held hope that Kirkuk might one day become part of an independent Kurdistan. A deep-seated enmity between the Kurds and Baghdad soon followed.

For years, Saddam Hussein vigorously pursued Arabization by offering monetary inducement for relocation, confiscating property, transferring jobs, deporting people by judicial order, even changing a person's registered ethnicity by an administrative procedure termed "nationality correction." In 1988, the final year of the Iran-Iraq war, Arabization took the form of a counterinsurgency campaign called the Anfal that was not limited to, but was most lethal in, Kirkuk's rural hinterland. In a six-month period, the regime methodically killed tens of thousands of Kurdish villagers, consigned many more to heavily guarded, bare-bones housing estates and erased their villages.2 

What I saw in Kirkuk in April 1991 was the regime's henchmen taking advantage of the Kurds' post-Gulf War uprising defeat to further Arabize Kirkuk. Little did I realize then that the bulldozers' rumble would resonate almost two decades later, magnified and transformed into a political roar. There is no doubt that the long-term policy of Arabization has come back to haunt Iraq, as the Kurds, returning in force after 2003, are seeking not only to regain lost properties and rebuild homes but to attach Kirkuk to their autonomous region, an ambition that Arabs and Turkmen are fiercely resisting. With the province's status remaining unresolved, the Kirkuk question has become the most divisive and most central issue of Iraqi politics today.


I RETURNED to Kirkuk in June 2003, this time for the International Crisis Group, and found the province in disarray. The Kurds had stormed into the city center ahead of American forces, seizing government institutions, and pushing out both Saddam's agents and the Arabs who had settled on Kurdish properties (many of whom left preemptively, fearing reprisals). This seemed yet another chance for the Kurds to rule Kirkuk, and, if all went according to plan, join it to the Kurdistan region. And thus the Kurds began a long and tenuous struggle to gain control at the local level, but they were up against fierce competition. The Arabs have always known their best hope for dominance lies in keeping Kirkuk under Baghdad's tight embrace, while the Turkmen, fearing domination by either side, have favored a special status (at least for the city) in which a degree of local autonomy would ensure greater control over Kirkuk's resources and destiny, with the Turkmen playing a major role as a significant minority group.

As in all of Iraq, the politics were complicated, with each ethnicity vying for supremacy as it attempted to work around the American agenda and a broken-down system in Baghdad. American commanders kept everyone in check. Despite strong sympathies toward their Kurdish allies that persist to this day, American officers recognized the area's ethnic diversity and enormous wealth, and sought to maintain stability by dividing power between local communities. They made their own calculations of each community's relative demographic and political strength, and when they established a city council in May 2003, they gave six seats each to the Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and Christians, reserving an additional six for "independents." In a nudge toward Kurdish interests, five of these six independents were also Kurds, thus granting them a dominant position and allowing them to appoint the governor. All seemed to be going well, at least at first, for the Kurdish cause. This gave rise to Arab complaints that the Americans favored the Kurds, while Kurdish leaders dissembled, declaring that their acceptance of this arrangement constituted a compromise on their part in light of their demographic majority (which no one could verify) and historic rights (which the other communities rejected).3

Image: Pullquote: Kurdish leaders will have to decide what they value most: their region's long-term security or its expansion in a manner that can only lead to endemic strife.Essay Types: Essay