Over the last eight years that current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been in power, the relationship between Baghdad and the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan has fluctuated wildly. But there is one thing that is certain – the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk is a flashpoint for conflict between Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurdish.
Why is Kirkuk so important? “Kirkuk has been among Iraq’s most intractable problems,” academic Stefan Wolff, a Professor of International Security at the University of Birmingham, wrote in 2010. “A diverse province and city with three main ethnic groups—Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen ... Controlling Kirkuk, which supposedly sits on approximately 10 percent of Iraq’s oil and gas reserves, or preventing someone else from doing so, has major resource implications.”
“Control of Kirkuk is also symbolically important for all three of its main ethnic groups, but especially so for Kurds who have come to see Kirkuk as ‘their Jerusalem’,” Wolff concludes.
And mostly recent conflicts over Kirkuk have been between Iraqi Kurdistan’s most popular political party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, which is headed by Massoud Barzani and the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki.
However the recent general elections indicate the pair may be fighting over nothing – or perhaps, that their fighting over Kirkuk has disadvantaged them both.
While the Iraqi Kurdish will likely take eight of the 12 seats allocated to Kirkuk after the elections, held at the end of April, most of these will not go to Barzani’s KDP. Instead six seats will go to another Iraqi Kurdish party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. The KDP only got two.
The other four seats are equally divided by the parties affiliated with the local Turkmen ethnicity and Sunni Muslim Arab parties. Some of the Sunni Muslim Arab politicians and the Turkmen politicians that won seats in Kirkuk are considered al-Maliki’s allies.
So it seems increasingly clear that neither al-Maliki nor Barzani has strong support in the city they often wrestle over.
Local observers say that neither party is particularly popular with voters in Kirkuk because of the psychological war they’ve undertaken in the area, with overt displays of military power.
Political analyst Qader Shikhati, who is preparing a doctoral thesis on the conflicts in Kirkuk and the future of the province, told NIQASH: “The way al-Maliki and Barzani have fought and the way they’ve displayed their military strength in the province has angered the people here. Neither leader has made more than 11 visits to Kirkuk in 11 years.”
The two parties themselves were quick to justify their losses in Kirkuk.
“If the State of Law was first in every province, then that would be evidence that democracy wasn’t working in Iraq,” says Haider al-Abadi, a leading member of al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition.
While the KDP blamed the PUK. “The PUK plays a big administrative role in the city and used the provincial budget to serve itself and its election aims,” complains Adnan Kirkuki, a senior member of, and spokesperson for, the KDP. “We don’t play such a role here which is why we were not able to do any of the things we would like to in Kirkuk, regarding stability and development. One can only do that if one occupies more of the administrative jobs. Anyway,” he added, “for us, the number of seats doesn’t matter. We still consider Kirkuk Kurdish.”
And the PUK seems to agree with this explanation. Although the KDP and the PUK supposedly share power in Iraqi Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region with its own legislation, borders and military, the reality is that Iraqi Kurdistan has basically been split into two separate zones of influence, with local administrations in Erbil and Dohuk controlled by the KDP and the Sulaymaniyah area mostly administered by the PUK.
The PUK has done more in Kirkuk than the KDP, they say. “The PUK’s military has been an effective force here and has made many sacrifices. And after 2003, we were the first to lead reconstruction efforts here,” says MP Khalid Shawani, of the PUK. “Other forces are more distant from Kirkuk, and that’s had an impact on the way locals voted.”