The Pre-War Situation
As recent events have shown, Kirkuk remains one of the outstanding issues in Iraqi politics. Not only does it have a national dynamic between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Baghdad, but a local one between Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, and Christians who live there and are all arguing over who has the right to control it. How did it get that way? A portrait of Kirkuk and Tamim province immediately after the U.S. invasion helps explain at least a part of the story.
In the weeks just before the war began in March 2003 hundreds of Kurds were being driven out of Kirkuk by Saddam’s forces. The goal was to prepare for the American invasion and suppress the Kurds who were expected to help them. This followed a long trend of Baghdad trying to change the demographics of the area. Saddam’s Anfal campaign that started in the 1980s, and his Arabization policy that displaced around 150,000 Kurds, Turkmen, and Assyrian Christians were the most famous examples, but the Iraqi government had been trying to move Arabs into Tamim since at least the 1950s. It’s believed that up to 350,000 Kurds and Turkmen were forced to leave as a result. The population was also changed by the fact that Kirkuk was the hub of the northern oil industry that attracted workers from around the country.
This has led to all kinds of claims to the city by each of the three major ethnicities there. For example, the Kurds say they were and are presently the majority, while the Turkmen point to the 1947 census that showed they were the largest group. A reporter from PBS’ Frontline that entered Kirkuk right after the invasion said that at that time the Kurds were 45% of city, Turkmen 25%, and the remaining 30% were split between Arabs and Christians.
Human Rights Watch warned in late March 2003 that Kirkuk was a disaster waiting to happen. They said unless the U.S. made plans for all of the people that were expected to return to the province after being pushed out by Saddam there would be a crisis. U.S., Turkish, and Iraqi opposition officials actually did meet that month, and said they would set up a committee to deal with northern Iraq, but it never materialized. This was no different from the rest of Iraq, where the U.S. also failed to adequately plan for the post-war situation.
Kirkuk During The U.S. Invasion
As soon as the U.S. war began in March 2003 Iraqi forces began abandoning their positions along the border with Kurdistan. This opened the road to Kirkuk, which the Kurds had promised the Americans they would not enter. The melting away of Saddam’s army was too tempting however, and the Kurdish peshmerga rushed to fill the vacuum. Looting was immediately reported in northern Tamim as the Kurds took out their anger at the Iraqi government. The situation was completely fluid and under Kurdish control, as there were only 2,000 U.S. paratroops in all of northern Iraq, and 50 Green Berets with the frontline peshmerga.
On April 10, the Iraqi forces withdrew from Kirkuk after heavy U.S. bombing, and Kurdish militiamen and civilians moved in. This set off alarm bells in Turkey that was afraid of Kurdish independence. Ankara warned that they would send in their troops if necessary to prevent that from happening, and the Turkish Foreign Minister demanded that observers be sent in at the minimum. He later talked to Secretary of State Colin Powell to get assurances that the Kurds would not be in control of Kirkuk.
Pillaging began in the city as well. There were lines of trucks and cars going back and forth from Irbil and Sulaymaniya to Kirkuk, full of looted goods. While most of the stealing appeared to be happening in Kurdish and government areas, the Turkmen claimed that they were being victimized by the Kurds as well. A day after Kirkuk fell, the Turkmen even held a demonstration against the looting. U.S. soldiers said they were powerless to stop it because they did not have control of the situation, very similar to what happened in other Iraqi cities after the fall of the government. The U.S. commander in Tamim later said that his unit had no plans for dealing with Kirkuk when they went into the country. They were originally tasked with just protecting the oil fields in the province, and were to stay out of the city. They were compelled to break those orders when Kirkuk descended into chaos.
Because of pressure from Washington and Turkey, the Kurdish leadership announced that the peshmerga would withdraw from Kirkuk. At the same time though, Kurdish police from Sulaymaniya were entering the city to assert law and order, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) was attempting to take over the administration. A contingent from the U.S. 173rd Airborne Brigade also arrived, and Ankara sent in a small group of Turkish Special Forces as observers.
As the looting was being brought under control, there were the first reports of Arabs being expelled from the city and surrounding rural areas. Divas, a middle class neighborhood in Kirkuk that was built for Iraqi army officers was found largely abandoned after Kurds told them they had 24 hours to leave or be shot. On orders from local PUK officials, 2,000 members of the Shamar tribe who had been moved into Tamim in 1973 with the promise of free land by the government were also forced out of four villages. A PUK official in a neighboring town said this was part of his party’s policy to remove all the Arabs that moved into the province under Saddam. Senior PUK leaders denied this claim however.
Most Arabs actually fled before the U.S. invasion even began. According to interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch, the main reasons why they left were to escape the U.S. bombings and fighting, fear of the Kurds’ revenge, and a belief that much of the property they occupied actually belonged to the Kurds. Many relocated to Kirkuk at first, but then moved south. There were already refugee camps full of Arabs just a week after the fall of the city, and those who tried to return to their homes said Kurdish civilians and peshmerga stopped them.
The Turkmen were also singled out. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) gave an eviction notice to the Iraqi Turkmen Front’s headquarters in Kirkuk on April 13. The party said that the KDP warned them that there would be trouble if they didn’t leave.
By May there were sporadic outbursts of violence between the different ethnic groups in Tamim. In that month, around 500 Arabs from the town of Hawija attacked the Kurdish part of Kirkuk, starting 36 hours of fighting. Five people were killed in the process. The cause was Kurdish harassment of some Arabs at a market and a bridge in the city two days beforehand. The Kurdish police also reported that Arabs had killed four Kurds in another neighborhood, and 40 people had been wounded since the fall of the city. American troops were later shot at in Hawija, showing that some elements were also mad at the U.S. for how things were going.
That anger increased when the Americans put together a governing council in Tamim. On May 25, a 300-member assembly of local leaders elected 30 delegates to the council. The Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs, and Christians got six delegates each, plus there were six independent members. That council went on to pick a governor. The day the council was seated the U.S. arrested five Arab members saying that they were Baathists. Two days before American forces arrested two other Arab leaders on the same charges. The Kurds ended up winning the mayor of Kirkuk, and got the majority of seats on the council when the Americans gave them five of the six independent positions.
In August 2003 violence flared up between Turkmen and Kurds. On August 22, Turkmen held a parade for a rebuilt Shiite shrine in the town of Tuz Khumato, south of Kirkuk. They got into an argument with Kurdish residents, who then tried to destroy the shrine with rocket-propelled grenades. The Turkmen rioted, burning down a police station. Eight Turkmen were killed as a result, two by U.S. forces. The Turkmen were mad at the Kurds and the Americans beforehand because they had appointed a Kurdish mayor and chief of police, even though the Turkmen were a majority there. The next day, Turkmen held a protest in Kirkuk that also led to rioting. Three Turkmen were killed, 15-20 demonstrators and police were wounded, and Kurds set about attacking Turkmen statues in the city. There the Turkmen were accusing the Kurds of flooding the city to create a majority to take it over, while Kurdish officials accused the Turkmen of being manipulated by Turkey.
These bursts of violence continued for the rest of the year, with no one willing to back down. On November 20, the PUK headquarters in Kirkuk was bombed and the Islamist Ansar al-Islam was suspected of being responsible. A month later demonstrations and counter-demonstrations by Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen for and against federalism in Kirkuk led to a shootout on December 31 leaving five dead. U.S. raids were also turning up illegal weapons in all of the major political parties’ offices including those of the KDP, PUK and Turkmen Front, as all sides seemed to be gearing up for a fight.
The Kurdish parties were also trying to create facts on the ground to support their call for Kirkuk to be annexed by Kurdistan. They encouraged people to move back to Kirkuk, and even offered money to each family that did. Once there, these returnees tended to live in tent camps or squatted on government property. By March 2004, there were around 25,000 Kurds living in these conditions. None of them said they’d gotten any money from the Kurdish parties however, and they were desperate to find work, and were relying upon the government food ration system. There were thousands more still in Kurdistan who said they would not go back unless they knew they had housing and jobs. Others said they were simply too poor to make the trip. While many of these people had a legitimate desire to return to Kirkuk, the Kurdish parties were also manipulating them in their attempt to rest control of the city for themselves.
There were Turkmen and Arabs in a very similar situation. Turkmen were also attempting to return to Kirkuk, and were forced to live in tent camps too, as well as Arabs that had fled the city before the invasion. By 2004 the Mahdi Army was organizing Shiite Arabs and Turkmen in the city against the Kurdish claims, and threatening people to not leave.
The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was very worried about the situation. Paul Bremer, the head of the CPA, was so concerned that he talked twice with Kurdish leaders asking them to drop their claims to Kirkuk, but to no avail. In September 2003 for example, the Kurdish President and head of the KDP Massoud Barzani said that all Arabs who had moved to Kirkuk and other Kurdish areas since 1961 had to leave. The CPA was panicking as a result, and did not offer any assistance to any of the Kurds that returned to Tamim, fearing that it would legitimize the Kurdish strategy.
By early 2004 the situation in Kirkuk and Tamim province were quickly deteriorating just as Human Rights Watch had warned about before the opening of hostilities. Reports of Arabs being expelled by Kurds after the fall of Kirkuk didn’t capture the fact that the majority had fled even before the war started. By June 2003 the Kurdish parties had cracked down on many of their members and there were no more stories of displacement. Much more important were the occasional flashes of violence, and the growing dispute over the governance of Kirkuk and Tamim. A year after the invasion, Kirkuk had grown from a local and regional problem to a national one as insurgents and the Mahdi Army were operating in the city, and the CPA was being drawn in. It seems that the divide and conquer strategy of Saddam Hussein was so effective that it continued to play out even after he was disposed. The Kurds, Turkmen, and Arabs were so tied up in their conflicting claims to Kirkuk that cooperation was nearly impossible. The lack of U.S. forces in the north also created a security vacuum that left every group to fend for itself, and the absence of U.S. planning for post-war Iraq allowed the PUK and KDP to become the de facto sovereigns of Kirkuk and many surrounding areas through their police and control of the administration. The subsequent years have only increased these divisions in the city, just as it has become more of an issue in Iraqi politics.
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