In a closed-door meeting at a Washington think tank in July, I had the opportunity to ask a high-ranking Iraqi Kurdish official whether he worried that Kurds might be overplaying their hands in Iraq and Syria.
I wondered whether regional powers couldn’t reverse the results of the September 25 independence referendum in Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Kurdish gains against ISIS in Syria. As a historian of the twentieth century, I expressed concern that the Kurds, rather than attaining their century-old dream of a national homeland, could be pushed back by their neighbors and international powers as they were in the 1920s, 1946, 1961, 1975, 1988 and 2003.
My interlocutor, whose name frequently came up in recent discussions on the KRG’s independence and Kirkuk, politely dismissed my points and assured me that my worries were unfounded—especially in Iraq. He informed me and the coterie of other Middle East watchers in the room that Iraqi Kurds, now in the 26th year of their autonomy, would peacefully negotiate their independence with the federal government in Baghdad. If things turned violent, Kurds would defend themselves as they always do.
Monday, October 16, 2017: The Fifteen-Hour War
But on October 16, the Kurds’ famed Peshmerga army (literally “those who face death”) didn’t/wouldn’t/couldn’t defend Kirkuk, which Iraqi forces had abandoned in the face of the ISIS onslaught three and a half years ago.
Around midnight, an Iraqi task force composed of regular army units, the federal police, the Counter-Terrorism Service, and the Hashd al-Shaabi militia (Popular Mobilization Units, or PMU) launched an assault to capture the oil fields, airport and the K-1 airbase west of the city. As one observer on Twitter pointed out, in the wee hours of October 16, it looked like the Iraqis aimed to capture only those areas west of Kirkuk, not the city .
But later that morning, reports came in that Peshmerga units loyal to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two major parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, withdrew from Kirkuk after an agreement with Baghdad. Soon after, Peshmerga forces under the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)—the largest party in the KRG—also withdrew. By late afternoon, Iraqi forces took full contro l of Kirkuk city and lowered the Kurdistan flag . Depending on how one counts, the fight for Iraq’s disputed oil-rich city took less than a day. Time will tell whether the battle will be called the “The One-Day War” or “The Fifteen-Hour War.”
The only consolation in this mess was that the withdrawal of Peshmerga units and civilians from Kirkuk, a city of some 1.2 million people, kept the death toll at a few dozen—a few dozen too high for the fallen and their loved ones, but nevertheless very low for the modern age.
Kirkuk as History
So, how did we get here?
In many respects, Kirkuk’s recent history reflects that of the modern Middle East. The city boasts overlapping ethnic, religious and political identities where Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens—be they Sunnis or Shia—live alongside non-Muslims and other minorities. Economically, Kirkuk province produces six percent of the world’s crude oil, a major boon to whoever controls it.
These dynamics turned Kirkuk into a bone of contention among different local and regional actors after the creation of Iraq following World War I. At the height of Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 1970s and 1980s, Kirkuk experienced an intense “Arabization” campaign that saw the forced removal of Kurds and Turkmens and the relocation of Arabs from the south.
After the Gulf War ended in 1991, Iraqi Kurds first gained de facto autonomy and then secured de jure autonomy under Iraq’s 2005 constitution—never losing sight of the Kirkuk prize. Under Article 140 of the 2005 constitution , displaced Kurds were supposed to return to Kirkuk and the province had to decide by the end of 2007 whether it would come under KRG rule or remain under federal jurisdiction.
When ISIS partially destroyed the Iraqi state in 2014, Kurds hoped that through negotiations with Baghdad, the Peshmerga’s mettle and the goodwill they accrued in fighting ISIS, they would get to keep Kirkuk in an independent Kurdistan. The One-Day / Fifteen-Hour War in Kirkuk now makes that prospect nigh on impossible.
Kirkuk also proved the curse of oil. Especially with the crash of crude oil prices in 2014, when quite a few Kurds expressed frustration that the KDP and PUK squandered Kurdistan and Iraq’s oil wealth (the KRG is supposed to receive seventeen percent from all Iraqi oil exports). Critics argue that, instead of investing in glitzy shopping malls, residential complexes and hotels, their leaders should have built an export-oriented economy by supporting non-oil industries and investing in modern schools to create a critical mass of entrepreneurs and professionals. (Ironically, many of my own students—promising future entrepreneurs and professionals in Iraq and Kurdistan—often express their hope of moving to Europe or North America, thinking that their life will automatically get better.)