Kirkuk is the Kurdish "Jerusalem"

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Kirkuk is an essential part of Iraqi Kurdistan. While Kirkuk's demography has been in flux in recent decades, this is largely a result of ethnic cleansing campaigns implemented by Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime. Free from Baathist restrictions, many Kurdish refugees have returned to their homes in the city and its immediate environs. While many diplomats and analysts may be tempted to delay decisions about the final status of Kirkuk—whether it should remain as it is or join Iraq's Kurdistan Region—any delay could be counterproductive to the goals of peace and stability.

A Mixed City

Historically, the majority of the city's population was Kurdish and Turkoman. The Turkomans traced their families back to the Ottoman era. Later, Arabs began to settle in the region. Writing of the ethnic composition of the city, the Ottoman encyclopedist Shamsadin Sami, author of the Qamus al-A'lam, found that, "Three quarters of the inhabitants of Kirkuk are Kurds and the rest are Turkomans, Arabs, and others. Seven hundred and sixty Jews and 460 Chaldeans also reside in the city."[1]

The Kurds predate other resident groups; the northern and eastern districts of the cities have been traditionally Kurdish. Turkomans later migrated to the region. According to the Encyclopedia of Islam, the local Kurdish population in Kirkuk was joined by a Turkoman minority as far back as the ninth century c.e. when caliphs installed Turkoman garrisons in the region.[2] In his history of the various Iraqi provinces, Iraqi historian Abdul Majid Fahmi Hassan placed the Turkoman migration in the mid-seventeenth century when Ottoman Sultan Murad IV wrested the region from Iranian control. As Murad returned to Istanbul, he left army units in position to control the strategic route linking Baghdad and Anatolia; the Iraqi Turkomans descended from these troops.[3] Prominent Turkoman families in Kirkuk, such as the Neftçiler and Awçi, trace their ancestry to Murad's troops;[4] moreover, the prominent ethnic Arab Tikriti family also traces their presence in the region to Murad's soldiers and the sultan's gift of land in and around Kirkuk as a reward for their military service against the Iranians.[5]

In the late Ottoman period, Kirkuk was the administrative center of the vilayet (province) of Sharazur. In 1879, it became a sanjak (district) within the vilayet of Mosul. Further changes occurred in the region in 1918 when the British army occupied the Mosul vilayet and created a new Arbil governorate. In 1921, the British estimated the population of the Kirkuk region to be 75,000 Kurds, 35,000 Turkomans, 10,000 Arabs, 1,400 Jews, and 600 Chaldeans. A League of Nations Committee that visited the Mosul vilayet in 1925 estimated that the Kurds comprised 63 percent of Kirkuk's population, the Turkomans, 19 percent, and the Arabs, 18 percent.[6]

Many Kurds grew crops and raised livestock near the streams and wells in the northern and eastern parts of the Kirkuk region, but after the 1927 discovery of oil, Arab, Assyrian, and Armenian migration into the city of Kirkuk itself accelerated.[7] From 1935, Arab families migrated to the nearby Hawija plain, southwest of Kirkuk, after the Iraqi government launched a large-scale irrigation project to open the drier southwestern portion of the region to agriculture. Other Arabs settled in Kirkuk as civil servants or serving as officers and soldiers in the Second Division of the Iraqi army, most of which was stationed in Kirkuk.

Because there was no census taken in Iraq until 1947, however, such figures are estimates, and the 1947 census itself is of little help because it gives no precise details of the ethnic composition of the population. However, the 1957 census—widely acknowledged as the most valid because it was the least politicized—broke down population by mother tongue, finding Kirkuk was 48.3 percent Kurd, 28.2 percent Arab, 21.4 percent Turkoman, and the rest Chaldean, Assyrian, or other.[8]

While demography might shift with time, Kirkuk's various communities have a long history of coexistence. Politically, Kurds have a long tradition of leadership in Kirkuk. On a national level, most Kirkuk representatives in the Iraqi parliament were Kurds and a smaller number of Turkomans. Local Arab representatives entered the parliament after settlement of the Hawija region. In the late Ottoman era, the sultan's governors mostly nominated Turkomans as mayors although, on certain occasions, Kurds also held the position. Later, during the monarchy, Kirkuk's mayors were mostly Kurds from the Talabany family.[9] It was only during the late Ottoman era and the Iraqi monarchy that many Turkomans became mayors. The first Arab mayor took office in 1969 when the Baathist regime appointed Muzhir al-Tikriti.

Until 1955, Kirkuk had just one high school, and the majority of the students had Kurdish and Turkoman backgrounds with smaller numbers of Arabs, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Armenians. Most Arab students were the children of civil servants, military personnel, or employees of the Iraqi Petroleum Company (IPC).

By long-standing tradition, the Kurds, Turkomans, Chaldeans, and Jews have had their own cemeteries. The Arabs, being a minority, buried their dead in the Turkoman cemeteries. However, in 1991, Saddam Hussein's government created special cemeteries for Arab settlers and banned Arab Shi‘ites from taking their dead back to Najaf for burial in order to bolster the Arab claim to the city. The Baathist regime subsequently began to rewrite Kurdish tombstone inscriptions with Arabic in order to retroactively alter the demography.

Ethnic Cleansing

The Baathists sough to implement their Arab nationalism by force. In June 1963, the short-lived Baathist regime of Ali Saleh al-Sa'adi destroyed thirteen Kurdish villages around Kirkuk and expelled the population of another thirty-four Kurdish villages in the Dubz district near Kirkuk, replacing them with Arabs from central and southern Iraq.

After the Baath party consolidated power in 1963, the National Guard (al-Haras al-Qawmi), recruited Arab Baathists and Turkomans who systematically attacked ethnic Kurds. Between 1963 and 1988, the Baathist regime destroyed 779 Kurdish villages in the Kirkuk region—razing 493 primary schools, 598 mosques, and 40 medical clinics.[10] In order to prevent the return of the Kurds, they burned farms and orchards, confiscated cattle, blew up wells, and obliterated cemeteries. In all, this ethnic cleansing campaign forced 37,726 Kurdish families out of their villages. Given the average rural Kurdish family size of between five and seven people, this policy forced over 200,000 Kurds to flee the region. The Kurds were not the regime's only victims. During the Iran-Iraq war, the central government destroyed about ten Shi‘ite Turkoman villages south of Kirkuk.

The Iraqi government also compelled urban Kurds to leave Kirkuk. It transferred oil company employees, civil servants, and teachers to southern and central Iraq. The Baathist government renamed streets and schools in Arabic and forced businesses to adopt Arab names. Kurds could only sell real estate to Arabs; non-Arabs could not purchase property in the city. The government allocated thousands of new residential units for Arabs only. Ethnic cleansing intensified after the 1991 Kuwait war when the Republican Guards crushed a short-lived uprising. In 1996, the regime passed an "identity law" to force Kurds and other non-Arabs to register as Arab. The government expelled from the region anyone who refused. In 1997, the Iraqi government demolished Kirkuk's historic citadel with its mosques and ancient church. Human Rights Watch estimated that between 1991 and 2003, the Iraqi government expelled between 120,000 and 200,000 non-Arabs from Kirkuk and its environs.[11]

In September 1999, the U.S. State Department reported that the Iraqi government had displaced approximately 900,000 citizens throughout Iraq. The report continued to describe how "[l]ocal officials in the south have ordered the arrest of any official or citizen who provides employment, food, or shelter to newly arriving Kurds."[12]

A New Beginning for Kirkuk?

In April 2003, coalition forces and the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga liberated Kirkuk from Baathist control. Many victims of Saddam's ethnic cleansing campaign sought to return to the region, only to be prevented by U.S. authorities. Many remain in tent-city limbo. Article 58 of the March 8, 2004 Transitional Administrative Law[13] sought to settle disputes in Kirkuk by means of an Iraqi Property Claims Commission and "other relevant bodies." In practice, however, successive Iraqi governments have done little, creating suspicion among many Iraqi Kurds as to the central government's intentions. The uncertainty over Kirkuk's status has impeded local development and sidelined the issue of refugee resettlement.

Article 140 of the new Iraqi constitution has adopted Article 58 of the Transitional Administrative Law, which necessitates the normalization of the situation in Kirkuk by which the legislature meant the assistance of the return of internally displaced people and their reclamation of seized property. Arabs installed in the region should be helped to return to southern and central Iraq, should they so desire. The four subdistricts of Kifri, Chemchemal, Kalar, and Tuz-Khurmatu annexed to neighboring governorates by the regime in 1976 should be returned to the governorate of Kirkuk. Article 140 also states that a local census must be organized and a referendum held to decide the future of the province. The set deadline for the implementation of this article is December 2007. However, if Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki does not implement the article within the allocated time, ethnic and sectarian unrest could explode in Kirkuk, the effects rippling throughout Iraq.

A report by the International Crisis Group proposes that the Iraqi government invite the U.N. Security Council "to appoint an envoy to start negotiations to designate the Kirkuk governorate as a stand-alone, federal region for an interim period" and recommends postponing the constitutionally-mandated referendum because of the threat that it could further exacerbate an already uncertain security situation.[14]

There is no need for another envoy. With many Arab League nations and Turkey opposed to the expansion of Kurdish self-rule, a U.N. envoy would not have the confidence of most of Kirkuk's residents. Nor should outside organizations, however well-meaning, delay implementation of Article 140. A wide swath of Iraqi society accepted the constitution after extensive consultation. And, on August 9, the Iraqi government nominated a high committee chaired by the Minister of Justice to implement Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution without delay.

Until the December 2007 referendum, which the U.N. has the expertise to organize, it will be impossible to know whether local residents wish Kirkuk to be absorbed into the Kurdistan Regional Government. Many Kurds do, but others are afraid of being pushed aside by established patronage networks and political machines imposed from outside the city.

Rather than destabilize the region, formal resolution of the dispute over Kirkuk's status should calm the city. Various ethnic and sectarian communities coexisted peacefully in Kirkuk until Abdul-Karim Qasim's 1958 coup d'état. The central government in Baghdad rather than local politics fueled most subsequent conflicts. Any census is sure to confirm the majority status of Kurds inside Kirkuk. They will demand the right to have their voice heard through the ballot box. But Kurdish empowerment through the democratic process need not mean disenfranchisement for the local Arabs and Turkoman communities. There is no reason why the various communities within Kirkuk cannot coexist peacefully again.

Nouri Talabany is the author of several books and articles about Iraqi Kurdish history. He is currently an independent member of parliament in the Iraqi Kurdistan region.

[1] Shamsadin Sami, Qamus al-A'lam (Istanbul: Mihran Press, 1896), see "Kirkuk."
[2] Encyclopedia of Islam (Leiden: Brill, 2004), s.v. "Kirkuk."
[3] Abdul Majid Fahmi Hasan, Dalil Tarikh Mashahir al-Alwiya al-Iraqiya [A Guide to the History of Iraqi Liwas-Kirkuk Liwa], vol. II, (Baghdad: Dijla Press, 1947), p. 58.|
[4] Ibid., pp. 284, 301.
[5] Ibid., p. 289.
[6] Jabar Qadir, "Kirkuk: karnun wa nisf min siyasat at-tatrik w'al ta'arib," Al-Malaful Iraqi (London), no. 99, Mar. 2000, p. 42.
[7] Hasan, Dalil Tarikh Mashahir al-Alwiya al-Iraqiya, p. 55.
[8] Census Registration Records of 1957, Iraqi Ministry of Interior, the General Population Directorate.
[9] Nouri Talabany, Arabization of the Kirkuk Region, 3rd ed. (Arbil: Aras Publisher, 2004), p. 21.
[10] Nouri Talabany, Arabization of the Kirkuk Region (Uppsala, Sweden: Kurdistan Studies Press, 2001), p. 94.
[11] "III: Forced Expulsions," Iraq: Forcible Expulsion of Ethnic Minorities, vol. 15, no. 3(E) (New York: Human Rights Watch, Mar. 2003).
[12] "Repression of the Iraqi People," Saddam Hussein's Iraq, U.S. Department of State, Sept. 13, 1999 (updated Feb. 23, 2000), accessed Aug. 7, 2006; Al-Hayat (London), Sept. 29, 2000.
[13] "Law of Administration for the State of Iraq for the Transitional Period," Coalition Provisional Authority, Baghdad, Mar. 8, 2004.
[14] "Iraq and the Kurds: The Brewing Battle over Kirkuk," Middle East Report, no. 56, International Crisis Group, Brussels and Amman, July 18, 2006.