The governance of Kirkuk has been a longstanding issue between Kurdish authorities and the Iraqi central government. Prior to 2003, Kirkuk’s successive Iraqi governments systematically changed the majority Kurdish demography as well as the geography of the city, excluding Kurds and placing Arabs in the municipal authority. After the American invasion that year, the Kurds became the main ruling authority in the city and further consolidated their power between 2014 and 2017. The Iraqi Constitution, through Article 140, created a roadmap to resolve the demographic and geographic disputes the city has gone through and grant the city’s multi-ethnoreligious population a referendum regarding their future. Yet Kirkuk remains a seriously disputed issue between not only between Baghdad and Erbil but also among the various local ethno-religious political parties within the city. Although this dispute primarily concerns Kirkuk’s citizens—Kirkukis—they no longer own their dispute and they have had the least influence in determining their future, a cause that has been coopted by political parties with little resonance.
Article 140, which includes holding a referendum, should have been implemented by the end of 2007. The article calls for “normalization and a census, concluding with a referendum in Kirkuk and other disputed territories to determine the will of their citizens.” However, authorities in Erbil and Baghdad have interpreted this as letting citizens decide between joining the Kurdistan Regional Government or remaining as a fully-integrated governorate within the Iraqi federal government, similar to the country’s other 15 governorates. The political parties on both sides have and continue to influence locals’ position on the issue, dominating the narrative in ways that have manipulated public discourse. This furthers a majoritarian style of politics, minimizes the influence of minorities (such as Christians and Iraqi Turkmen), and prevents creative solutions to governance issues. It has also led to an impasse and the failure to implement Article 140. In the interim, Kurdish power in Kirkuk steadily grew until a Kurdish referendum for independence in October 2017. As part of its efforts to prevent the success of that movement, the Iraqi central government seized Kirkuk and reverted local governance there to a system resembling the pre-2003 dynamic, which was dominated by Arabs. But all three systems—the pre-2003 Arab government, Kurdish rule from 2003–17, and the status quo—have relied on overtly nationalist sentiments while failing to address the various grievances and ethno-religious conflicts in the city. Ruling an ethnically and religiously diverse city on the basis of ethnic nationalism has completely failed, leaving citizens of Kirkuk to suffer from poor governance and lack of basic public services despite the rich oil fields outside the city.
Moving Beyond Ethnic Divisions
Kirkukis have managed to coexist amid propaganda campaigns carried out by political parties from all sides. Kirkuk, like the other cities of Iraq, has a young population that does not remember the era of dictatorship under Saddam Hussein. This generation, now coming of age, has only known conflict and failed governance and has started to demand public services, employment, better governance, and democratization. As various political parties have broken promises to deliver these goods, the people—and especially the youth—are putting their ethnic nationalist feelings behind them and working together to secure their future.
Despite ongoing political disputes over Kirkuk, Kirkukis—Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen; Christians, Shi’a, Sunnis, and Kakayis—have been living side by side for years and also have shared family bonds. While Kurdish parties want the city to be Kurdistani and Turkmen and Arabs want it to be Iraqi, none of these sides had policies to meet the demands and grievances of the people, instead prioritizing party interests. However, beyond and despite partisanship, Kirkukis are working to improve their city.
As an example of the cross-sectarian interests of Kirkukis, the youth organization Kokar was established in 2016 and now has 40 staff members from across the population. Kokar, which has attracted international attention, defines its mission as “building engaged community through transmitted volunteering initiatives, community awareness, collaborative planning, law enforcement, policy advocacy and consultation.” Several thousand activists have worked on the organization’s initiatives, including efforts to fulfil the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. In an interview, one of Kokar’s cofounders said that Kirkukis want to enjoy their lives, but have been manipulated by political parties to focus on ethnic and religious chauvinism, rather than solving the issues facing the city.
Volunteering unites the various Kirkuki youth in a kind of spiritual combining of the people who have been victims of ethno-sectarian nationalism. With property owners’ permission, volunteers write positive slogans on walls, such as “Kirkuk is for all,” “Kirkuk is better with peace,” and “Diversity” in Kurdish, Arabic, Iraqi Turkmen Turkish, and English. Volunteers painted the Khasa Bridge a multitude of colors to represent the diversity of Kirkuk. The youth are trying to create a collective memory and unified identity for Kirkukis, and people have responded their initiatives very positively. One of the cofounders of Kokar said, “We have redefined differences. For us, being Turkmen, Arab, and Kurd has only been used for political issues, not a difference for the way we live our daily lives. [The holiday of] Nowroz belongs to all. [The chemical attacks of] Halabja is an event that we together commemorate and use to condemn a fascist system. When a system is unjust, the injustice does not observe religion or ethnicity.” The organization has offered the provincial council proposed solutions to various governance issues.
Where Does Kirkuk Go From Here?
Kirkuk is currently in need of a joint administration that reflects the diversity of the city to address the demands of the people, rather than those of certain politicians and political parties in Erbil, Baghdad, and Ankara (as Turkmen parties have relationships with the Turkish government). The Iraqi government has scheduled provincial elections and a census for 2020; the new assembly in Kirkuk will replace one last elected in 2005, as the main parties have been unable to agree on even a system for elections. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan—the more influential of the two Kurdish parties in Kirkuk—was corrupt and ineffective in its time in power in the city. It is not clear how the effects of national politics and the fight against the Islamic State will impact local elections that are scheduled to take place in April 2020.
Regardless of the political outcome, Kirkukis are demanding their say in the future. Civil society, youth, and intellectuals of the city are and must be further engaged to be represented in determining their future. Since 2003 a new generation has emerged that has different dreams from the people who have been representing them without sharing common dreams and concerns. Kirkukis should not be limited to the dilemma of siding with either Baghdad or Erbil. They should also be given a chance, if they want, to be a federal region within Iraq, which is not in opposition to the Iraqi Constitution and laws. In fact, this would be the most appropriate approach to the Kirkuk issue, and has been supported by many sides of the city, including the former governor and several PUK leaders. Certain political parties and politicians might be against this idea as their interests of oil will be jeopardized, and they claim that the Article 140 should be implemented first. However, implementation of the article is in no way an obstacle in turning Kirkuk into a federal region.