Kirkuk, Asharq Al-Awsat—With its crumbling ruins and ghostly relics of communities that have long since disappeared, Kirkuk’s ancient citadel tells the story of what may happen to Iraq in the near future as deftly as it illustrates the city’s past.
We passed through the checkpoint at the citadel’s entrance an hour before sunset and strolled among the overgrown weeds and remnants of barbed wire. This empty and echoing place used to be a community, a walled microcosm of Kirkuk’s cosmopolitanism where people of all faiths lived and worked. You can still find the tombs of Jewish prophets beneath the twin green domes of a mosque.
Saddam Hussein cleared the inhabitants out and turned the whole citadel into a military base. After his fall in 2003, people crowded back into it for picnics and sunbathing in the glorious spring sunshine, but the revival was brief and soon forgotten. As Iraq descended into a sectarian nightmare, even walking Kirkuk’s streets became a game of Russian roulette. Now there is just one resident left in the citadel—a stubborn old man who refuses to leave even though his house is falling down around him.
Kirkuk is the place where Iraq’s rich tapestry of faiths and ethnicities converge. No single group forms the majority in this city: Christians and Kurds, Sunni and Shia, Turkmen and Arabs all live here. It is also the center of the country’s oil industry. Combined, these two factors have made Kirkuk the sticking point in a decade of negotiations between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Baghdad. The Kurds claim that this is their historical center in Iraq and want it as part of their region. Baghdad has always refused to let it go.
But—bizarrely and ironically—an uprising led by ultra-Salafist extremists and disgruntled Iraqi Sunnis and former Ba’athists may have gifted Kirkuk to the Kurds. When news of the fall of Mosul reached the ears of the Iraqi troops based in the city, they downed their weapons and fled. The Peshmerga, the KRG’s indigenous Kurdish militia, stepped in to fill the vacuum.
Thirty miles south of Kirkuk on the road to Tikrit, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) territory begins. In less than two weeks, the frontline between the jihadists and the Peshmerga has crystallized into a 620-mile (1,000-kilometer) border between two brand-new de facto states.
At the Khanaqin base near the Jaloula frontline in the far southeast of the Kurdish region, rank-and-file Peshmerga say they are defending their territory with a sense of pride and purpose.
“I am happy to be fighting, because this is the first time in our history that we have had a border to defend,” said Daban, a fighter with piercing blue eyes and a reputation among his comrades for his skill with a machine gun.
Yet ISIS is hardly a friendly neighbor for the Kurds, and for the past two weeks there have been ongoing clashes right along that new border.
Despite that, many people say they feel safer now than they did before the crisis.
“Before the Peshmerga took control of Kirkuk there were two or three terrorist incidents every week,” said Furhat, a Kurdish resident of Kirkuk. “Explosions, kidnappings: it was very unsafe. But in these two weeks since the Peshmerga took control there has been nothing. Kirkuk is very secure.”
Yet there are signs of a crackling tension. On Friday afternoon, not long after midday prayers, a group of angry men set fire to a bin in the middle of the main road to Tikrit in protest at the deepening fuel crisis in the city. Shots were fired into the air as we drove away. At the Kirkuk Air Base, a military compound that was deserted by the Iraqi Army, the Peshmerga guarding the entrance told us that hordes of weapons were looted before they arrived to secure it. Some of those weapons have been recovered; the majority have not. Locals at a semi-legal weapons market told us that Kirkuk civilians are arming themselves, just in case.
“Before this situation, not that many people had weapons,” said Hunar, an officer in the Kurdish security service, the Asayiş. “Now we are sure that they do.”
Kirkuk’s residents are proud of their diversity, but they are also wearily aware of the dangers that diversity can bring in Iraq. Slowly—perhaps inevitably—some of the city’s groups are starting to arm themselves.
Last week, the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF) announced the formation of a new militia in Kirkuk, saying they would fight back should the Peshmerga refuse to hand the city back to the central government in Baghdad. A few days later, the Sadrists—a Shi’a militia that rose to grisly infamy during Iraq’s darkest days—paraded through the city.
At the headquarters of the Turkmen Communist Party, a group of the city’s Turkmen residents discussed their predicament.
“We do trust the Peshmerga, but we want joint forces to protect the city,” said Hassan Touran, the Deputy Leader of the ITF. “The Kurds have used ISIS as a pretext to take control of Kirkuk.”
Ali Shukur Ummar Bayatli, a dapper old man in a fedora, was less diplomatic. “Let me put it like this,” he said. “Hitler was the reason for Israel. He did genocide against the Jews and then they came to rule. Iraq did genocide against the Kurds, and now they are coming to rule us.”
A bulky man sitting opposite intervened. “We shouldn’t go deep into the history,” he said as he fingered a long string of wooden prayer beads. “Everyone has history and we have to live together in this city.”
Kirkuk’s Turkmens—a community that encompasses both Sunnis and Shi’ites—have lived relatively peacefully and inconspicuously in the city in recent years. Other groups have not been so lucky.Across town, Father Toma donned his robes and strode through the entrance gate, waved a friendly greeting to the two armed guards standing watch there, and flung open the door of his church. As he pulled back the heavy velvet curtains he revealed an alcove adorned with Aramaic script and a colorful altar nestling in the middle of it. St John the Baptist is one of two Assyrian churches in Kirkuk. “This church has been threatened many times since the fall of Saddam,” he said. “Last year an IED exploded at the Holy Family Church. Now we are waiting for what will happen next.”
Father Toma said he was not phased by the Peshmerga’s move into the city. Perhaps that is because he has been living with insecurity and fear for years already. “Personally I think the Peshmerga are good because they will defend the Christians,” he said. “I am scared that the church could come under attack from ISIS.”
Christians and Muslims didn’t always fear each other in Kirkuk. Up in the old citadel, the ruins of an Assyrian church stand next to the Mosque of Daniel the Prophet. The two are so close their walls almost touch.
Under the setting sun Abu Youssef, a Sunni Arab resident of Kirkuk, took a stroll through the citadel’s otherwise deserted plaza with his two wives and their children. He used to be stationed here when he was a general in Saddam Hussein’s army. This was the first time he had been back in 15 years.
As his children ran off to play among the ruins of the citadel, he looked around him and summed up Iraq’s dilemma. “I would prefer a government that belongs to Iraq as a whole,” he said. “But since 2003 there has been no security. The US and Britain didn’t understand the real situation when they invaded. The proof is what you’re seeing now.”