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July 1, 2010 A Multi-National Intervention as Remedy for the Kirkuk Impasse

Kurdishaspect.com - By Saeed Kakeyi


Kirkuk—an oil-rich with vast agricultural lands—has been one of the principal impasses to a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question in Iraq.

Geographically, the Kirkuk Region straddles the strategic trade routes between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. However, it was the discovery of vast quantities of oil that led Great Britain, in 1926, to append Kirkuk and the former Ottoman Wilayet of Mosul (of which the Kirkuk region was a part) to the newly created state of Iraq. This new state, created in 1921, was under the Mandate of Great Britain. Ever since, and particularly after 1963, there have been continuous attempts by the central governments of Iraq to Arabize Kirkuk.

A geo-historical synopsis of the Kirkuk Governorate

The diamond-shaped Kirkuk region lies between the Zagros Mountains in the north-east, the Lower Zab and the Tigris Rivers in the north-west and west, the Hamrin mountain range in the south-west, and the Diyala (Sirwan) river in the south-east. This is the region and city known as Ara'pha to the ancient cultures and as Karkha d’beth Silokh to the classical world (Talabany: 2000, 7). To Sassanians, this was their governorate of Garmakân (Talabany: 2000, 7). By the medieval authors, the region was known as Garmiyân. This historic name still survives for the region in the common folk language, while the classical Seleucid name of Kirkuk is reserved for the city alone.

Major trade routes pass through or touch on the borders of the Kirkuk Region. To safeguard these commercial and strategic crossings, Ottoman military forts were established in the nearby cities of Kifri, Tuz-Khurmatu, Daquq, Perdé as well as within Kirkuk city itself. The city of Kirkuk has served the area as its major hub since the beginning of the 17th century (Talabany: 2000, 8).

Speaking of the city’s ethnic composition at the end of the 19th century, the Ottoman encyclopedic, Shamsadin Sami, states in his celebrated Qamusl al A’ala'm that “Three quarters of the inhabitants are Kurds and the rest are Turkmen, Arabs, and others. After visiting the city of Kirkuk, he estimated the population to be between 12 and 15 thousand, all Kurds except for 40 Armenian families (Talabany: 2000, 8).

During the years of conflict between the Shi’ite Safawid Empire and the Sunni Ottoman Empire, the Kirkuk region, and Kurdistan in general, became a constant battleground (Amin Zaki: 1961, 164). Kirkuk’s strategic location led to its changing hands many times and suffering a great deal of damage (Amin Zaki: 1961, 166).

C.J. Edmonds describes the administration of the Kirkuk region during the last phase of the Ottoman rule thus: “In the 18th century Kirkuk was the chief town of the Wilayet of Sharazur which included the modern [Iraqi] liwas of Kirkuk, Arbil and, nominally, of Suleimani under a mutassallim. With the reforms of Midhat Pasha, Wali of Baghdad from 1869 to 1872, the name of Sharazur was given to the sanjak of Kirkuk, corresponding to the present-day liwas of Kirkuk and Arbil, whereas the historic Sharazur remained outside, in the new sanjak of Suleimani. The Wilayet of Mosul was formed in 1879, and Kirkuk remained an important garrison town” (Edmonds: 1957, 6).

Under the renewed, direct, Ottoman rule the Wilayet of Mosul was divided into three governorates of Mosul, Kirkuk and Suleimani. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, three districts (qada’) situated to the north of the Lower Zab River were detached from Kirkuk to form the governorate of Arbil. Under the Iraqi administration, in 1925, Kirkuk became a governorate comprised of the four districts of Kirkuk Central, Kifri, Chamchamal and Tuz-Khurmatu (Talabany: 2000, 9).  

The Turkman population in the Kirkuk Governorate

To better control the area, the Ottomans encouraged their more loyal subjects and military personnel to settle in the cities and towns—of Tel Afar and Mosul in the north, Arbil, Kirkuk and Kifri in central north and Khanaqin and Mandali on the present Iraq-Iran borders—which dotted the trade routes in the Mosul Wilayet (Talabany: 2000, 11).

The Iraqi historian Abdul-Razzaq Al-Hassani asserts that the Turkmen of this inclined region are “a part of the forces of Sultan Murat IV who recaptured Iraq from the Safawid Persians in 1638 and remained in these parts to protect this route between the southern and northern Ottoman Wilayets” (Talabany: 2000, 11).

Many Turkman military personnel who settled permanently in the above mentioned cities subsequently engaged in commerce and other professions. The earliest traces of Iraqi Turkmen are, perhaps, to be found in the Turkman soldiers who served in the region under the flags of the Abbasid caliphs and, eventually, the Ottomans (Khasbak: 1973, 211). The Turkmen themselves maintain that they migrated to Iraq during the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates to lend their military talent to those dynasties.

Estimates of the number of Turkmen made public during the 1920s and 30s put them at 2.1% to 2.4% of the total population of Iraq (Ismail: 1993, 22). In the official Iraqi census of 1957 which is, until now, considered to be the only valid census, this approximate proportion was basically reconfirmed and the results revealed that Turkmen made up 2.16% of the total population (Talabany: 2000, 14) However, this percentage decreased in later censuses partly because the Iraqi regime deliberately muddled the ethnicity of the Turkmen and classed many of them as Arab. By the time of the 1977 census, the Turkman share of the Iraqi population was recorded as a mere 1.15 % of the total state population (Talabany: 2000, 14). The fall in percentages was recorded for Kirkuk as for the other governorates where Turkmen resided. 

Relations between Kurds, Arabs and Turkmans

As a way of promoting Turkman dominance in the last years of Ottoman rule, the right to extract petroleum in a primitive way from the Baba-Gurgur oil fields near the city and to sell it for local consumption was granted to the Turkman family of Nafitchizada (Talabany: 2000, 17). Despite this, the Ottomans did not expel the Kurds from the city, nor did they deny the ethnic make-up of the city as being one in which a Kurdish majority co-existed with Turkmen and other ethnic groups. Monarchical Iraq followed the same general policy, but they awarded sensitive positions, such as that of Provincial Governor or General in Command of Iraq’s Second Army Division stationed in Kirkuk, mostly to Arabs. This in turn encouraged many Arab families to migrate to Kirkuk region to be employed with the Iraqi Petroleum Company (IPC) early in the twentieth century (Talabany: 2000, 23).

Meanwhile, throughout the monarchical period, two-thirds of the members representing the Kirkuk governorate in the Iraqi Parliament were Kurds and the other one-third was Turkmen and only sometimes, during forty years of monarchical rule, was there one or two Arab representatives. This representation in the Iraqi Parliament reflected, to a great extent, the ethnic composition of the governorate before the policy of extensive Arabization began in the early 1960s (Talabany: 2000, 18).

In general, however, most cabinets of monarchical Iraq encouraged Arabs to settle in Kirkuk. For instance, the cabinet of Yasin Al-Hashimi in 1935 embarked on settling groups of the Arab Ubaid tribe in the Hawija district of Kirkuk (Talabany: 2000, 24). After the coming to power in Iraq of the Ba’ath Party in 1963, played a prominent role in the Iraqi government’s efforts to Arabize the city of Kirkuk, their descendants readily joined the Ba'ath party and were rewarded with sensitive civil service jobs. 

Oil and the Arabization of Kirkuk

The City of Kirkuk has been known to have oil long before the Ottoman occupation of Kurdistan. However, since 1639, the Ottomans used primitive methods to extract it for local consumption (Talabany: 2000, 22). Nonetheless, the systematic and organized exploitation of the Kirkuk oil fields only began seven years after the British occupation of present-day Iraq in 1918. Whether or not the initial intention of the Colonial Britain in the aftermath of the World War I was to help the minorities of the defeated Ottoman Empire to establish their own nation-states, the discovery of enormous oil reserves in Kurdistan led to a fundamental change in British policy towards the Kurdish self-determination issue.

At first, there was a tendency among some British officers to favor the creation of a Kurdish state that would extend northward to Lake Van and southward along the ridges of Hamreen Mountains in current Iraq. Kurds were trying to persuade the Western countries to implement the terms of the Treaty of Sevres, signed on August 10, 1920. The Treaty stipulated the establishment of a Kurdish state in Ottoman Kurdistan. This was first proposed by Captain Noel, a British political officer who had traveled throughout Kurdistan. Then the policy changed to one of working actively for the annexation of the former Kurdish populated Ottoman Wilayet of Mosul to the newly established British Mandate of Iraq which, until then, was comprised of the former Wilayets of Baghdad and Basra alone (Talabany: 1999, 35).

The British Mandate authorities for Iraq and Kurdistan organized a referendum in 1921 on the accession of Emir Faisal bin Hussein as king of the new state of Iraq. The great majority of the people of the Kirkuk region rejected this proposal. Other Kurdish regions, such as the Suleimani, refused even to take part in the referendum. Kirkuk later became a part of the Iraqi kingdom when the League of Nations, at its 37th Assembly in Geneva, on December 16, 1924, decreed that all the land below the “Brussels Line” (the current Iraqi-Turkish border) should be incorporated into Iraq (Talabany: 2000, 20).

Later, however, successive Iraqi governments tried with varying degrees of intensity to change the ethnic character of the Kirkuk region and perpetually appointed Arabs to the key positions. From the outset, in co-operation with the British oil company operating in Kirkuk, the central government in Baghdad brought large numbers of workers from other parts of Iraq to work in the company and then to settle in the city. The company brought in a large number of skilled Arab and Assyrian workers from other parts of Iraq (Talabany: 2000, 21). 

The establishment of the petroleum industry in Kirkuk brought about a significant change in the city’s social and ethnic character. The new neighborhoods, near the oil company’s facilities, housed mostly Assyrians and Arabs. So, from the beginning, the Kurds felt resentful that, in spite of their numerical majority in the city and governorate of Kirkuk, so few of them were employed by the oil company. This influx of workers from other areas into the city marked the beginning of the process of Arabization there. Following this earliest example, the process of changing the ethnic character of Kirkuk became a permanent undertaking by all the subsequent governments that have ruled Iraq since the coup of February 8, 1963.

The resumption of the fighting in Kurdistan in June 1963 between the Kurdish Peshmerga Forces (freedom fighters) led by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Ba’athist pan-Arab Iraqi regime, with the aid of most Turkmen, intensified the Arabization of Kirkuk governorate and other Kurdish cities and towns in the governorates of Mosul, Arbil and Diyala. Among the many measures taken by the organizers of the February 1963 coup were: The deportation of Kurds, the destruction of their towns and villages, the demolition of their neighborhoods in the city of Kirkuk with the consequent displacement of many, and the transfer of Kurdish civil servants and workers to southern and central Iraq. Accordingly, Arabization became a well-established policy of all Iraqi regimes from 1963 to 1968.

The Arabization of Kirkuk from 1968 to the 1991 Desert Storm

The Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party returned to power in a military coup on July 17, 1968. Leading Ba’athists were appointed as governors of Kirkuk and granted wide and extraordinary powers. Shortly after seizing power, the regime used the following measures to change the ethnic character of Kirkuk: 

• Low-ranking civil servants, including Kurdish elementary and secondary schoolteachers, as well as workers in various government departments and in the oil company facilities, were transferred to areas outside the Kirkuk governorate and replaced with Arab civil servants and workers. Kurds were barred from ever returning there (Talabany: 2000, 35).

• The names of Kurdish neighborhoods, streets, schools and markets were changed to Arabic names and the owners of commercial establishments were forced to adopt Arabic names for their businesses (Ali: 2008, 54). 

• Wide streets were constructed in the Kurdish neighborhoods with very laughable compensation. Then, Kurds were forbidden to sell their properties in Kirkuk except to Arabs, and were prevented from buying homes or renovating their existing homes and properties under any circumstances (Ali: 2008, 56).

• Fraudulent new lists of Arab newcomers were added to those of the 1957 census to give the impression that they had lived in Kirkuk since 1957 or earlier (Ali: 2008, 61).

• Various charges, threats and intimidations were applied against many Kurds to force them leave the city and then confiscate their homes and properties. Many Kurds were arrested, imprisoned and put to death by with neither charge nor trial (Ali: 2008, 66). 

• New factories and government facilities were built in the southern outskirts of Kirkuk city and thousands of residential units were constructed only to be given to Arabs (Ali: 2008, 67).

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