Next year in Jerusalem

The tale of Kirkuk’s contested past

Member of Iraqi security forces shoots at a poster of Iraqi Kurdish President Barzani in Kirkuk

Next year in Jerusalem

To match feature IRAQ-KIRKUK/

Next year in Jerusalem

After Baghdad stormed into Kirkuk on Monday with the help of Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) to retake Iraq's oil-rich and ethnically diverse fourth-largest city, the Kurds lost their Jerusalem. Will they take it quietly? A look at Kirkuk's history suggests not.

Members of Iraq’s security forces enter Kirkuk in military vehicles, October 16, 2017.

Of all the paradigm-shifting stories of summer 2014, none more than the capture of Mosul by ISIS made bigger headlines. When 30,000 Iraqi troops fled the northern Iraqi city rather than fight, the city’s fall augured what seemed to be the dawn of a strange and terrifying new era.

Fast-forward three years, however, and Mosul has been recaptured (at a cost of 40,000 lives)—the caliphate’s designs on the greater Levant in all but tatters.

The real story of summer 2014, historians may some day say, was the 12th division of the Iraqi army’s abandonment of Kirkuk in the face of what also seemed an unstoppable advance by ISIS.

Yet rather than be overrun extremists, this ironically left the gates wide open for Kurdish Peshmerga forces to seize Iraq’s most fabled oil-rich city without firing a single shot.

Like the fall of Salonika (now better known as Thessaloniki) to the Greeks in 1912, this “peaceful” transfer of power from a much larger central state to an aggrieved people partially within it would have momentous regional consequences, the smoke of which has yet to clear.

Acting on the old Balkan motto that it is always better to make someone else a minority in your country than become one in theirs, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is now doing its utmost to include the mixed but historically Kurdish-plurality city of Kirkuk into an independent Iraqi Kurdistan.

If at first you don’t succeed

Yet on Monday thousands of Iraqi army troops, with support from Iran-backed Shia Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), recaptured the center of Kirkuk and its most valuable oil field, Baba Gurgur (lit. “father of fire”).

The shoe now on the other foot, Peshmerga forces abandoned their posts practically without a fight.

Not to mention a rather fine feather in Tehran’s burgeoning cap.

Blood and oil

Kirkuk matters for two main reasons: oil and ethnicity. With an estimated 8-10 billion barrels, or nearly 10% of Iraq’s total estimated reserves, the oil-rich city is hugely important not only to Erbil and Baghdad, but Ankara, Tehran, and well beyond.

For Erbil, which until Sunday had controlled three of Kirkuk’s five main oil fields since 2014, the city and immediate province are crucial to funding its independence project, not to mention the monthly salaries of its security detail, the Peshmerga, which double as police and army and are thought to number around 190,000.

Kirkuk alone produces some 200,000bpd, just shy of oil-rich OPEC member Equatorial Guinea’s output and well over one-third of Kurdistan’s total production of 544,000bpd in 2016. Yet even that figure is a far cry from the city’s prewar output of 680,000, more than all of Malaysia, Ecuador, or Argentina.

Given that the Kurdish-controlled regions outside Kirkuk only account for 12% of Iraq’s total oil production, the inclusion of Kirkuk within an independent Kurdistan would practically double the nascent country’s output.

A paradigm shifter of nation-building proportions, only with the oil-rich city in its pocket does Erbil stand a chance of genuine independence from Baghdad and a roadmap to 21st century sovereignty.

On this and arguably this alone does it most firmly agree with Baghdad and Ankara.

Turkish jack

Ironically, prior to the September 25 referendum, which Ankara opposed as vehemently as Baghdad, Turkey was by far and away the biggest purchaser of Kurdish oil.

In a sense, it was the only purchaser, as the black crude flowing from the Kurdish enclave had but one route that didn’t go through Baghdad, via the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, a route that ended in the Turkish Mediterranean port of the same nomenclature.

Before and since September 25, Ankara has not only been mounting troops on the border with the KRG, but threatening to cut off the pipeline to Ceyhan. Whether it will now do so in the wake of Baghdad’s advance on Kirkuk remains unclear.

As (American) pundits have been quick to claim, Monday’s victory is as much Iran’s as anyone’s. Whether Turkey will now forgo cheap Kurdish oil to help nip the Kurdish state in the bud now that Baghdad’s back in town will say much about Ankara’s commitment.

Next year in Jerusalem

Given that the sole foreign power to recognize Barzani’s September 25 referendum was Israel, it is both ironic and fitting that leading Kurdish politicians such as Jalal Talabani, founder of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the KRG’s two main parties, commonly refer to Kirkuk as the “Jerusalem of Kurdistan.”

Just as Mormons refer to Missouri as the Garden of Eden, claims of this sort are perplexing to the unproselytized.

But they also point to the product of a deeply painful past that is mostly unrelated to oil reserves: from the 1970s through the 1990s, Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime carried out a ruthless and systematic process of “Arabization” along Iraq’s “mixed-population belt” stretching from Sinjar in the west through Mosul, Kirkuk, and finally Khanaquin in the east.

Throughout this campaign some 250,000 Kurds and other minorities were pushed out and replaced by wafadeen (“newcomer”) Arabs from central and southern Iraq, a process that continued until the eve of Saddam’s downfall.

In the 1990s alone more than 100,000 were displaced from Kirkuk and its surrounding areas.

Like clockwork, the fall of Baghdad to the Americans in 2003 saw a massive influx of Kurds return to Kirkuk. Within less than a year, some 60,000 were living in makeshift tents in and around the city, a temporary solution whilst they tried to secure their property from wafadeen that had taken over their homes in the 1990s—many of whom preemptively fled, expecting their homes’ rightful owners’ return.

A US soldier patrols a field in Kirkuk, 250km (150 miles) north of Baghdad October 25, 2010.

Morally higher ground than thou

The product of fairly systematic ethnic cleansing while Americans were suffering through the dot-com bubble and the release of Will Smith’s Wild Wild West, the all too recent wounds of the Arabization campaigns have done much to bolster Erbil’s moral claims over Kirkuk.

Yet if historical victimhood and American arms were the left hook for the KRG’s post-2003 designs on Kirkuk, the Peshmerga’s willingness to stand and fight against ISIS, to many a postmodern reincarnation of the Ba’athist regime, was the right.

Spoils to the victor, as the adage promises, which Baghdad now also hopes to reap. But what of all the previous claimants on the city, lakes of whose ancestors’ blood have also been spilt?

The evils of Sykes-Picot more-popular-to-remark-upon-than-Jesus notwithstanding, one must remember that Baghdad is far from the only ex to cherish the memory of Kirkuk’s warm backseat embrace.

Though Turkey is better known for its nostalgic claims on Aleppo and Mosul, one mustn’t forget that Kirkuk was, in the authors’ grandparents’ lifetime, an integral part of the Ottoman Vilayet of Mosul, which also included the KRG province of Sulaymaniyah.

Albion as perfidious as ever

Directly administered by the British after the Armistice of Mudros (1918), which ended hostilities between the Ottomans and the Allies, it wasn’t until 1926 that Kirkuk and the entire Vilayet of Mosul were incorporated into the newly created British mandatory Kingdom of Iraq in a deal brokered by the League of Nations.

Bitterly contested by the nascent Turkish Republic (est. 1923), the Mosul Question, as it came to be known, was the most critical territorial objective of Atatürk’s young state.

Even the Treaty of Lausanne (1923)—which was signed by İsmet İnönü and officially relinquished all Turkish sovereignty over Cyprus, the Dodecanese Islands, Egypt, Syria, Sudan, and Iraq—left one issue unresolved to be later determined by the League of Nations: the question of the Mosul Vilayet.

Turkish tanker Ottoman Dignity berthed at the Turkish port of Ceyhan, near the southern Turkish city of Adana, waiting to start the first loading of Iraqi oil since the US-led war on Iraq, June 22, 2003.

There were two reasons why the young Turkish state was so adamant to hang onto Mosul and its environs: oil and ethnicity.

While people had long known that something extraordinary was in the ground around Kirkuk, especially where, in the words of 18th century cartographer Carsten Niebuhr, “the earth is so hot that eggs and meat can be boiled here,” actually exploitable deposits had yet to be located.

But the Turkish Petroleum Company (TPC), a British outfit that would change its name first to the Iraqi Petroleum Company in 1929 and later to the Iraqi National Oil Company after being nationalized by Saddam in 1972, had been hard at work looking for oil in Mesopotamia since 1912.

Owned by a consortium that included Deutsche Bank and Anglo-Persian, the antecedent of BP, only the outbreak of World War I put a momentary halt to TPC’s efforts to strike black gold in Ottoman territories.

Once the conflict was over—and Mesopotamia now lay in Britain’s, not Berlin or Constantinople’s, hands—the race was back on.

Ankara knew this all too clearly, yet could do little to change the facts on the ground.

It was one thing to expel Entente fops from the lounge at Pera Palace; quite another to drive out 100,000 British imperial troops or counter the RAF’s new policy of “aerial policing,” an economical means of governance dreamed up by Churchill that consisted of bombing recalcitrant villages from the sky before not asking questions.

In 1926, just as the author’s grandmother was learning to differentiate Topeka from Tallahassee, Turkey finally conceded the Vilayet of Mosul to the British Mandate Kingdom of Iraq. In return, Ankara was promised a 10% royalty on Mosul’s oil deposits for 25 years.

A year later, the Brits struck oil for the first time in Mesopotamia at Baba Gurgur, thus inaugurating the Iraqi 20th century.

Gloriously Turkmen

Apart from Albion clutching the Father of Fire in his pudgy pink paws, the other hugely contentious issue of Kirkuk’s incorporation into an independent Iraq or Kurdistan was always going to be the status of its large Turkmen, Arab, and Christian Assyrian minorities.

As British observers even noted at the time, the majority of urban dwellers in Kirkuk at the collapse of the Ottoman Empire were Turkish, not Arabic, speakers.

They too would suffer in later decades under the Arabization campaigns of Saddam Hussein, though at least the Turkmen had a father figure north of the border who could exert pressure when need be.

Needless to say, Turkey, especially its far-right nationalist party, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), has been particularly vocal in its opposition to Kurdish designs on Kirkuk. MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli has repeatedly said since September that thousands of Turkish volunteers are ready to fight to retake Kirkuk, the “glorious Turkish city.”

Just for good measure, he added that Mosul and Erbil are also Turkmen cities.

Quantum cui bono?

Now that Baghdad seems in full control of Kirkuk, the real questions that arise are two: first, will the battle-hardened Peshmerga and historically deprived Kurds give up their golden goose so easily? Or will Monday’s assault be merely the first lob of a looming civil war between two allies both trained and armed to the teeth by Washington?

Second, if Baghdad invariably has reclaimed its oldest oil field with the help of Iranian arms, with whom may it now have to share?

After all, a major contention throughout the entire build-up to the referendum on Kurdistan was whether the KRG would jeopardize its rather good ties with Turkey in Barzani’s bid to make the cover of future textbooks. Regardless of what Washington has to lose (“America is not taking sides,” says the Trump administration), it does seem that Tehran’s gain is Ankara’s loss, should Kurdish oil that previously went through Turkey now flow east instead.

Whatever the case, the urrythang-up-for-grabs age of ISIS, ignominiously inaugurated in 2014, seems to have come to an end. The only wars left are between states still standing—and those of the future hoping to join them.

The Kurds have lost their Jerusalem. How long are they prepared to wait for next year?