Global Policy Forum

Kirkuk: Between Kurdish Separatism


By Nimrod Raphaeli*

Middle East Media Research Institute
March 31, 2005


The City of Kirkuk with its Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen population of 700,000 will serve as a critical test of the ability of the emerging democratic government in Iraq to fashion workable compromises among diverse populations and conflicting demands while preserving the country's national integrity.

The Kurds maintain that the city is the heart of Kurdistan and should be integrated into the Kurdistan region of Iraq, which currently comprises the three governorates of Dahouk, Irbil and Sulaymaniya. The two minorities in the city, the Arabs and the Turkmen, wish to keep Kirkuk as part of the Governorate of Ta'mim, which is not part of Iraqi Kurdistan. Some key Iraqi political forces, as well as three neighboring countries with Kurdish minorities — mainly Turkey but also, to a lesser extent, Iran and Syria — favor the exclusion of Kirkuk from Kurdish control. The controversy surrounding Kirkuk is well summarized in a statement by the London daily Al-Hayat: "Kirkuk is the jewel in the Kurdish throne and a powder keg with respect to the unity of Iraq." [1]

Recent History of Iraqi Kurdistan

The two principal Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan under Jalal Talabani and the Kurdistan Democratic Party under Mas'oud Barzani ran a joint list of candidates in the recent Iraqi elections, held on January 30, 2005. The joint list received a little over 25 percent of the votes, which translated into 75 seats in the 275 seat National Assembly. The Kurdish group emerged as the second largest in the new National Assembly, second only to the Shi'ite United Iraqi Alliance, which gained 140 seats.

The two Kurdish parties have not always been on good terms. In fact, in 1994 the two camps battled one another for control of the Kurdish region. In August 1996, Barzani sought the help of Saddam Hussein, who readily sent an army of 30,000 in support of Barzani's camp. Then, under pressure from the United States, which had been providing air cover under the no-fly zone policy in northern Iraq since the defeat of the Saddam military in Kuwait in 1991, the two Kurdish parties signed an agreement in Washington in 1998 to end the civil war. Under the agreement Kurdistan was divided into two zones: a western zone, with its capital at Irbil, came under the control of Barzani, and an eastern zone, with its capital at Sulaymania, came under the control of Talabani. Each zone had its own government, prime minister and democratically elected parliament. Eventually a joint parliament emerged whose members were also democratically elected. By all accounts, the two Kurdish zones have prospered economically under democratically elected governments. Kurdistan also remains the sole area in Iraq that has been able to shield itself, almost completely, against acts of terrorism. Kurdistan remains a popular vacation spot for many Baghdadis seeking to escape the debilitating heat of the summer months in their city.

The Arabization of Kirkuk

Traditionally Kurdish, the city of Kirkuk began to undergo a process of Arabization in the mid-1930s when the discovery of oil in the city generated a flow of Arabs and Turkmen into the burgeoning oil industry. The process of Arabization, namely the settling of Iraqi Arabs in the city to change its demographic structure, continued throughout the reign of the Hashemite monarchy, but was greatly accelerated under the Ba'thist regime of Saddam Hussein with the introduction of new and extreme measures to destroy Kurdish villages and to force deportation of their people to other parts of Iraq under the "Anfal" operation in the 1990s. [2]

At the height of the Anfal operation, Saddam expelled as many as 150,000 (some say 250,000) Kurds and Turkmen to the southern regions of Iraq and replaced them with Iraqi Arabs. Those who resisted the relocation were dealt with harshly, as evidenced by the mass graves discovered following the collapse of the regime.

As a result of the Arabization policy, hundred of thousands of Kurds and Turkomen have been forced to live in tents for several years and many of them, to this day, living in poor conditions waiting to be restored to their old homes. For the Kurds, this is human rights issue.

The Kurds insist that the consequences of Arabization must be reversed by resettling the Arabs in their provinces of origin, primarily in southern Iraq; this would restore to the Kurds their historical demographic weight. In the words of Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of the former Iraqi Governing Council, the annexation of Kirkuk into a Kurdish region is not meant to "Kurdicize" the city but to remove the relics of its Arabization. According to Othman, the 1959 census had shown a majority of Kurds in Kirkuk and that majority should be the sole criterion in determining its future. [3] By contrast, the Turkmen, working closely with the Arabs, argue that Kirkuk is a predominantly Turkmen city and should remain part of a unified Iraq. Turkey supports their claims and has threatened to use force to frustrate Kurdish claims to Kirkuk.

Kirkuk's Symbolic Importance

In a statement carried by the Iraqi weekly Al-Shahid Al-Mustaqill ("The Independent Witness") Talabani argued that Kirkuk had "a symbolic importance" because of the ethnic cleansing policies practiced by the previous regime. "Our struggle for Kirkuk," he asserted, "is a struggle for destiny" to restore all the liberated Kurdish areas, including Kirkuk and its surroundings, "to the bosom of Kurdistan." Emphasizing the newly acquired political weight of the Kurds, bolstered in part by their alliance with the United States, Talabani said "the time of betraying the Kurds has gone forever." [4] A photograph of Talabani displaying to Iraq's Governing Council an early twentieth century-map showing Kirkuk as part of Kurdistan adorns many walls and public buildings in Kurdistan. [5]

Mas'oud Barzani, the other Kurdish leader, has gone even further. In a meeting with members of his party, Barzani has said Kirkuk is "the heart of Kurdistan" and expressed the willingness of the Kurds to go to war "for the sake of protecting this identity and [retaining] the benefits the Kurds have gained since the end of the [2003] war." [6]

In an interview with the London daily Al-Hayat, Barzani stated: "My father sacrificed himself and his revolution in 1974 for the sake of Kirkuk. If we should be forced to fight and lose everything we have accomplished we [still] would not bargain over Kirkuk's identity—the heart of Kurdistan." [7] The Legal Foundation for Kurdish Demands

Apart from their historical claims for Kirkuk, the Kurds invoke Article 58 of the "Law of Administration for the State of Iraq for the Transitional Period," also known as the State Administrative Law, of March 8, 2004 which is considered the interim constitution of Iraq, approved by the now-dissolved Iraqi Governing Council.

Article 58 states in part: "The Iraqi Transitional Government … shall act expeditiously to take measures to remedy the injustice caused by the previous regime's practices in altering the demographic character of certain regions, including Kirkuk, by deporting and expelling individuals from their places of residence, forcing migration in and out of the region, settling individuals alien to the region, depriving the inhabitants of work, and changing nationality."

The article recommends four specific measures:

  • Restore the original residents to their homes and property
  • Compensate those who were introduced to specific regions [e.g., Arabs in Kurdistan] and resettle them in or near the district from which they came
  • Provide compensation for those who lost their jobs by being forced to emigrate
  • Allow individuals to determine their own national identity and ethnic affiliation free from coercion and duress [again, this applies primarily to Kurds who were forced to declare themselves as Arabs for the purpose of population census] [8]

The Economic Dimension

There are also practical reasons underlying the Kurdish position with regard to Kirkuk. The city and its surroundings sit on approximately 15-20 percent of Iraq's vast oil reserves estimated at a minimum of 112 billion barrels of oil. The area could produce as much as 800,000 barrels of oil a day and thus generate a significant stream of income for the Kurdish population in northern Iraq. Should the Kurds secede from Iraq they would need the oil revenues to protect and sustain their independence. Without oil revenues of their own (as opposed to oil revenues earmarked for them by the central government) the Kurds' room for maneuver would diminish appreciably. Kurdistan's neighbors – Turkey, Iran and Syria – concerned about the effects of an independent Kurdistan would have on their own Kurdish populations, oppose the Iraqi Kurds having control of these oil revenues. In the eyes of an Iraqi daily, the controversy over Kirkuk has to do with its oil: "Oil alone is the reason for the Kurdish insistence, Arab refusal, Turkmen protests and the regional austerity. If Kirkuk were not an oil city we would not have heard all the historical and geographical arguments from all sides." [9]

While the Kurds could negotiate with the central government an agreement that would guarantee them a reasonable percentage of oil revenues earned by Iraq as a whole and consistent with their size in the population, such an agreement would make them dependent on political forces that could turn against them as the Kurds have often experienced during their affiliation with Iraq.

Appointment of an Independent Committee

The Shi'ite and Kurdish factions in the Iraqi National Assembly have been negotiating a coalition agreement that would establish the form and modalities of the new government and the distribution of its portfolios. Meanwhile, the outgoing government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi has appointed an independent committee to resolve the issues surrounding the future of Kirkuk. The committee is chaired by the Secretary of the Iraqi Communist Party Hamid Majid Mousa. Mousa recently told the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that his committee had been established "to assure the political forces in Kurdistan that the central Iraqi government is serious and committed to the normalization of the situation in the Kirkuk area in accordance with article 58 of the State Administrative Law." He indicated that the committee will seek to resolve the problems in four steps: eliminating the consequences of Saddam's dictatorship; mending the (results of) ethnic cleansing, drawing the boundaries of the area, and carrying out a population census, "followed by a referendum of the local population" to gauge their political preferences. [10]

Other Kurdish Demands

The issue of Kirkuk should be considered within the context of other Kurdish demands. Central to these demands is the creation of a federal system of government for the Kurdish region within some structure that would essentially guarantee the Kurds sovereignty in everything but name, and would leave them the option of gaining full independence in the future. The Kurds are asking for guarantees that that federalism will be anchored in the new constitution that has yet to be drafted and should not be arbitrarily changed or abrogated.

Regional Federalism vs. Provincial Federalism

While there is a consensus among most Iraqi political groups about the establishment of a federal form of government to be anchored in the new constitution, there is disagreement as to the exact nature of this federal arrangement. Without exception, the non-Kurdish Iraqi majority favors a federalism based on provinces. Iraq is divided into 18 provinces and, according to this view, each province should have some degree of autonomy within a federal framework that leaves much of the power at the center in Baghdad. Since most provinces, especially those in the north, have a mixture of ethnic groups including Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians, and Christians, this scheme would somewhat limit Kurdish control over three provinces - Sulaymaniya, Irbil, and Dahouk - that have enjoyed political autonomy since 1991. [11]

By contrast, the Kurds have insisted on regional or ethnic federalism that would bring into one region, and one political framework, all the provinces with substantial Kurdish populations, including the oil-producing city of Kirkuk. The idea of the federation of provinces is rejected, according to Jalal Talabani because "throughout their history, the Kurdish people have struggled to prevent the separation of the Kurdish provinces from each other and to protect the integrity of the historical Kurdish borders…" [12]

The Integration of the Peshmerga into the Iraqi Army

The Kurds demand the integration of 100,000 Peshmerga (Kurdish militia forces) into the Iraqi army, meaning that their salaries should be paid by the Iraqi treasury while at the same time restricting the entry of the regular Iraqi army into Kurdistan without the regional parliament's prior approval. In the words of the Kurdish leader Barzani, "the Peshmerga is a tree that has borne fruit by the blood and tears of a people. It was not established by the order of a state, a political party or an individual. Without it, the Kurds would have had no existence." [13]

Secular Legislation

The Kurds are also persistent in their demand for a secular rather than an Islamist state. They demand that Islam become one source of legislation but not the only one. Ideally, they would like the separation of state and religion. [14]

The Return of Kurds to Their Cities and Villages

While the discussion about the future of Kirkuk is still ongoing the Kurds have been trying to create a new reality on the ground. By September 2004, 80,000 Iraqi Kurds had returned from Iran and another 30,000 had returned from Turkey. [15] It may be assumed that many more have since relocated in the Kurdish region, and Kirkuk in particular, from others parts of Iraq and from across the border. The Kurdish leaders have continually sought a legal process for the return of the Internally Displaced Peoples - IDPs - for without a legal process some of these peoples may take it upon themselves to restore their lost property with extra-legal measures.

Relations Between the Iraqi Kurds and Neighboring Countries

The Kurds understand the potential danger to themselves that would result from military action undertaken separately or jointly by Turkey, Iran, and Syria. Turkey has repeatedly announced that it is committed to the protection of the large Turkmen minority in Kirkuk and has threatened to intervene militarily if Kirkuk should be annexed to Kurdistan or if Kurdistan should declare independence. Turkish concerns about an independent Kurdistan have been echoed by Iran and Syria. All three countries have Kurdish minorities with varying degrees of separatist aspirations. [16] Recently, however, Turkey has shown a new flexibility in dealing with the Kirkuk issue.

A delegation representing both the Turkish foreign ministry and the military high command and headed by Ambassador Othman Kurtuk visited Sulaymaniya in northern Iraq for talks with Jalal Talabani, who was seen at the time as the emerging consensus candidate for the post of president of Iraq. Talabani urged Turkey to refrain from turning its concern about the future of Kirkuk into threats to intervene in Iraq and reminded the Turkish delegation that the Turkmen are Iraqi, not Turkish citizens. On its part, the Turkish delegation agreed with its Kurdish interlocutors about the need to establish a secular regime in Iraq supported by the Kurds and by other important politicians such as Ayad Allawi and the Sunni political leader Adnan al-Pachachi. The two parties have also agreed to try to smooth over their differences. [17]

There are at least three reasons for Turkey to behave with restraint with regard to Iraqi Kurdistan. First, Turkey will have to weigh the consequences of any military action in northern Iraq against the damage this would do to its hopes of obtaining membership in the European Union. Second, at a time of severe pressure on oil supply, oil from Kirkuk could provide Turkey with a reliable source of supply. Third, the Kurds with their well-armed and battle-hardened Peshmerga could provide problems even for the large Turkish military. In the words of the 19th century German General Helmut von Moltke: "It is impossible to triumph over the Kurds when they are united." [18]

As for Syria, it is in no position, at least for now, to undertake any adventure outside its borders. Iran for its part will probably choose to influence the policies of a Shi'ite government in Iraq through subversion and other non-military means. In short, the threats of foreign military action against an independent Kurdistan in the end may prove to be hollow.

About the Author: Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is Senior Analyst of MEMRI's Middle East Economic Studies Program.

More Information on Iraq
More Information on Iraq's Government


1. Al-Hayat (London), February 4, 2004.

2. Nouri Talabani, "The Arabization of Kirkuk," Uppsala (Sweden), 2001, pp.20-38.

3. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), January 12, 2004.

4. Al-Shahid Al-Mustaqill (Baghdad), October 30, 2004.

5. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 23, 2005.

6. Al-Hayat (London), September 9, 2004.

7. Al-Hayat (London),October 20, 2004.

8. Saddam Hussein's government issued an order on September 6, 2001 allowing the change of nationality from non-Arab to Arab in an effort to change the demographic structure of Kirkuk. Al-Zaman (Baghdad), October 24, 2004.

9. Al-Shiraa (Baghdad). January 10, 2004.

10. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 14, 2005.

11. Al-Zaman (Baghdad), January 9, 2004.

12. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 21, 2003.

13. Al-Hayat (London), March 16, 2005.

14. Al-Zaman (Baghdad), February 16, 2005.

15. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 21, 2004.

16. Al-Furat (Baghdad), November 30, 2004.

17. Al-Hayat (London), February 25, 2005.

18. Al-Hayat (London), October 14, 2002.

More Information on Iraq
More Information on Iraq's Government


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.