Kirkuk, IRAQ — Kirkuk’s skyline is dotted with colorful swatches of flags, each one marking the territory of one group or another. An oil-rich cultural hub in northern Iraq, Kirkuk has been a place of contention for decades, with Kurds, Turkmen, Iraqi Arabs and Assyrian Christians all claiming the area as historically their own.
More recently, the Sunni militant group Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has claimed the city as part of its self-proclaimed caliphate. Over the past year Islamic State has repeatedly made aggressive moves to take over the city. The most recent of these was a large-scale attack in February that failed, during which Islamic State militants stormed Kirkuk and seized an abandoned hotel near the center of the city.
The Kurdish Jerusalem
While fighting on the province’s border rages on, the city’s center is calm. The ancient Kirkuk Citadel in its heart, dating back to the first century B.C.E., hints at the city’s age. The contemporary Kirkuk Cultural Center, meanwhile, whose name appears on its facade in five languages — Arabic, English, Kurdish, Assyrian and Turkish — suggests the complexity of the city that Iraqi Kurds call the “Kurdish Jerusalem.”
According to Prof. Liam Anderson, a political scientist at Wright State University of Dayton, Ohio and coauthor of the 2009 book “Crisis in Kirkuk: The Ethnopolitics of Conflict and Compromise,” the city’s importance to Iraqi Kurds cannot be overestimated.
“The use of the term [Jerusalem] is obviously not intended as a literal analogy, but it is used both as a way to capture how Kurds in general feel about Kirkuk, to show that Kurds care as much about Kirkuk as Arabs care about Jerusalem — it gives the Kurds’ claim to Kirkuk an emotive dimension,” Anderson told Haaretz.
Since Iraqi Kurds gained partial control of the city, during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Kirkuk has become a key card in the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government’s bid to establish a Kurdish state — despite being beyond KRG borders.
While KRG peshmerga units control the city, armed forces of the Iraqi central government and the Iranian-funded Shi’ite Badr Brigade are stationed in the district. Each group controls different sectors, ensuring no force has a monopoly on protecting the disputed area from any potential advance by Islamic State.
As Islamic State continues to push at Kirkuk’s borders, security in the area is high. Checkpoints cause small traffic jams, as cars are stopped and searched. While most of the city’s checkpoints are controlled by the KRG or the Iraqi Army — sometimes together — the Badr Brigade controls many checkpoints in the greater provincial region, with the hesitant recognition of both Kurdish and Iraqi state forces.
With the threat of Islamic State at Kirkuk’s door, animosity appears to have been pushed aside for the sake of the security of the hotly contested city.
In Kharabaroot, a small Arab village in one of Kirkuk’s western provinces, Tariq Zalil, a Kurdish peshmerga general, exudes enthusiasm when talking about Kirkuk.
All except two buildings in the village, now emptied of its Arab inhabitants, were destroyed. Kharabaroot is now a frontline position, defending Kirkuk from Islamic State militants.
Zalil says he is proud to protect Kirkuk with his battalion at Kharabaroot, not only because of the threat posed by Islamic State but also because of the city’s importance to Iraqi Kurds.
“There is not just one important thing about Kirkuk and the area, it is all important to us, from the small villages to the city itself,” Zalil says. “Kirkuk is the Jerusalem for Kurdistan, this land is all Kurdish land, historically and now. We fought a long time with Saddam Hussein for it before — he just wanted it because this whole area has oil. Now we are having to fight ISIS for our land again.”
Culturally and economically important to any independent Kurdish state, Kirkuk also holds great strategic military value, Zalil tells Haaretz. An Islamic State takeover would create a direct corridor between Anbar Province, which Islamic State controls, and the official border of the KRG, putting the Kurdish cities of Irbil and Sulaymaniyah at risk.
Demographic battles for control
While the last population census was in 1957, Kurds such as Zalil cite a historic demographic majority as one of their claims on the disputed city. Arabs, Turkmen and Assyrians all make similar claims, each group saying they were a majority in the city and province at different times over Kirkuk’s long history of human habitation, which may stretch back 5,000 years.
Kirkuk’s recent history however, has been fraught with a purposeful demographic battle, fronted by Saddam Hussein’s “Arabization” campaign. The Iraqi dictator, who was deposed in 2003 and executed in 2006, drove Kurds out of the city and replaced them with Iraqi Arabs. A decade ago, the KRG introduced a “normalization” campaign in an attempt to reverse the demographic damage and reinforce Kurdish claims to the city.
Looking toward Islamic State positions from Kharabaroot, the Kurdish soldiers under Zalil’s command hint that the village’s Arab residents will not be allowed back easily. The demographic battle is now part and parcel of the war with Islamic State over the disputed province.
“Saddam brought Iraqis here to try and turn Kirkuk into an Arab city,” Zalil says. “This was to change the population. But no one will take this city from us; this area — all of it — is Kurdish, Kirkuk is Kurdish.”
With the advent of Islamic State and the subsequent expansion of the Kurdish peshmerga presence in the city and province, Zalil says he is happy the Kurds are starting to get their way and to solidify their grip on the disputed city.
Not everyone is so happy, however. A few kilometers south of the city, Abdulwahab Karahay sits in a small cramped tent in Laylan Internally Displaced Persons Camp that he shares with several members of his extended family. An Iraqi Arab, Karahay fled from his home in Tikrit, south of Kirkuk. Islamic State now controls the city.
Karahay says he has been stuck at Laylan since October because the Kurdish authorities refuse to issue a permit that would allow him to go to Kirkuk.
“They won’t let us out. My brother had injuries from airstrikes and he was not allowed to get to Kirkuk to a hospital for two months. They don’t want to let Arabs in,” Karahay says.
Karahay says he was told that his permit application was refused because, as an Arab, he could be a “security threat,” but he believes the true cause is demographics-based discrimination.
“The politicians are all playing a game with Kirkuk,” Karahay tells Haaretz solemnly. “But it’s the normal people that are suffering from their land grabs.”
With additional reporting by Abed al Qaisi.
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