Historic Kirkuk: The city has long been a flashpoint for ethnic and sectarian tensions. (photo: San Diego Air & Space Museum / Wikimedia Commons)
There are all kinds of names used to describe the northern city of Kirkuk and its surrounds. The Heart of Iraq. The Kurdish Jerusalem. A Mini-Iraq. Most of these refer either to the fact that Kirkuk hosts such a mixed population, one that includes Arabs, Turkmen and Kurdish populations, or to the fact that it is also one of the country’s disputed territories; that is, the Kurdish say it belongs to their semi-autonomous region while the Iraqi Arabs say it belongs to Iraq proper.
But recently a new name has been thrown around: Kirkuk - The Independent Region.
As the extremist group known as the Islamic State is being pushed back in Iraq and the future looks more secure in the north, local politicians have once again started to debate Kirkuk’s future.
Governor Najmuddin Karim: “If Kirkuk remains with Baghdad our future is unclear.”
There appear to be three main options. Firstly, no change, which would mean Kirkuk remains part of federal Iraq. Secondly, annexation to the neighbouring Iraqi Kurdistan – that is, the area becomes part of the semi-autonomous region controlled by the Iraqi Kurdish. And thirdly, Kirkuk strikes out on its own, and gains recognition as another semi-autonomous region, except in its own name.
Ever since the security crisis sparked by the Islamic State, or IS, group began, Kirkuk looked to be moving toward the second option. The Iraqi Kurdish military had moved into the city and surrounds to secure them and prevent incursions by the IS group. To all intents and purposes, Kirkuk was under the control of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Politically this process had been underway since before the security crisis. In April 2014, Iraqi Kurdish politicians took the majority of seats in the 12-seat cabinet of the provincial council and Kirkuk’s governor is also Kurdish.
Any of Iraq’s provinces can become a region if they follow the steps outlined in the Iraqi Constitution, which involve agreements between provincial council members as well as among voters.
Interestingly enough, the Kurdish governor of the province, Najmuddin Karim, likes the idea of an independent Kirkuk. His enthusiasm is shared by some of the other Kurdish politicians and a number of the Turkmen.
“Kirkuk should be separated from Baghdad so that we can see more economic developments and better security,” Karim told NIQASH. “If Kirkuk remains with Baghdad our future is unclear.”
In terms of a timeline, Karim, who is a member of one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s leading political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, says that Kirkuk should be independent first. After this, the local people can decide what should happen or possibly Iraqi Kurdistan’s political leadership will decide it belongs to them.
Karim’s opinion is actually the opposite of what most of his colleagues in the PUK want, as well as what most of the members of Iraqi Kurdistan’s other major party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, want. They oppose the idea of an independent Kirkuk region.
“The Iraqi Kurdish military and security forces are in charge of security in Kirkuk, and its oil is also exported through Iraqi Kurdistan,” argues Adnan Kirkuki, a senior member of, and spokesperson for, the KDP. “The future of the city is clear. It should be returned back to the Iraqi Kurdish region. Iraqi Kurdistan is getting ready to hold a referendum on Kurdish independence,” Kirkuki continues, referring to KDP leader, Massoud Barzani’s ongoing calls for independence from Iraq. “Kirkuk should be part of this.”
Turkmen politicians have slightly different ideas about Kirkuk’s independence. The Turkmen Front, which represents all the Turkmen parties in Kirkuk, has nine seats on the 41-seat provincial council. The Turkmen Front likes the idea of a Kirkuk region but it wants this to be permanent, with no possibility of Kirkuk later becoming part of Iraqi Kurdistan.
“Kirkuk should be transformed into an independent region,” agrees Ali Mahdi, the spokesperson for the Turkmen Front. “An independent Kirkuk could have a cabinet, president and parliament similar to that which Iraqi Kurdistan has now. But the senior positions in the new administration must be shared out equally between the Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen until there is peaceful coexistence in Kirkuk.”
Meanwhile the Arab politicians in Kirkuk’s provincial government don’t like the idea of an independent Kirkuk at all.
“The history of Kirkuk is indelibly linked to the Iraqi state. Any kind of independence would be a red line,” says Mohammed Khader, an Arab politician in the provincial government. “Kirkuk is a miniature version of Iraq and this microcosm, where all the Iraqi ethnicities live together, should not be vandalized. Anyone who tries to harm this miniature is committing political suicide,” he insists.
“The IS group is slowly being pushed out of Kirkuk’s surrounds but the Iraqi government is not fulfilling its obligations here either,” says Omar Zankana, a lecturer in political science at the University of Kirkuk. “That is why the different political parties here are trying to make decisions about the future of the province.”
However, he argues, none of the groups can make the decision alone – they don’t have the numbers. “Two of the groups should make a decision together and if they are united it will be easier for them to hold a referendum on the future of the city and province,” he concludes.