Bet-Shlimon of the University of Washington delivers a thorough and complete history of modern Kirkuk. This is no mean feat with archives burned, fraudulent documents circulating, and interested parties snatching up the few legitimate records to keep them from political competitors. She covers political history ably and with broader perspective than many writers while identifying patronage and societal networks and tracing how they evolved against the background of Kirkuk's changing sovereignty: Ottoman, British, and ultimately Iraqi.
Many works about Kirkuk are polemical arguments for the city's domination by one ethnic group or another. Few incorporate a wide range of sources or are willing to challenge political myths. Unfortunately, Bet-Shlimon did no research in Kirkuk itself, but her work is, nevertheless, invaluable. She relies instead on archival collections in the United Kingdom, Greece, and United States, as well as memoirs and other Arabic, Turkish, and English sources.
For much of the twentieth century, Kirkuk was arguably the most important city in Iraq after Baghdad. It was the site of Iraq's earliest oil industry and later the frontline of ethnic rivalry between the country's Arab population, restive Kurds, and Turkmen descended from Ottoman elites. The 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein placed Kirkuk in the crosshairs again, as the autonomous Kurdistan Regional and Baghdad governments clashed politically—and in 2017 militarily—over control of the city and its lucrative oilfield.
While the Baghdad government and Iraqi Kurdistan squabble over Kirkuk's control, Bet-Shlimon finds that Kirkukis never embraced either nationality. Rather, they developed their own identity against the backdrop of the oil industry even if this identity was never cohesive enough to overcome communal divisions. She wisely calls out those who retroactively extend current ethnic identities back in time, arguing both that identities are fluid and that immigration has changed the character of the city at different times.
Bet-Shlimon's chief weakness is that her study ends before Saddam Hussein's fall. She briefly mentions the Anfalethnic cleansing campaign, the post-1991 formation of the Kurdistan Regional Government, and the ethnic tensions unleashed after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, but there is no comprehensive survey of Kirkuk's role in post-Saddam Iraq. This is unfortunate, but it reflects her insistence on staying true to the historical method rather than to often inaccurate journalism.
City of Black Gold is unapologetically academic, but Bet-Shlimon's writing is accessible to the lay reader. It should be mandatory reading, not only for Iraqispecialists but also for diplomats, journalists, and military officers who seek a crash course in Iraqi complexities and a deeper understanding of an important city that remains a flashpoint.