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Kurds' struggle intensifies ethnic conflict in Kirkuk

In the Iraqi city, violence erupted last week as six were killed in clashes between Kurds, Turkmens, and Arabs.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 9, 2004


As former exiles, Munir al-Makafili and Suhan Said have much in common. Mr. Makafili, an ethnic Turkmen, spent 20 years outside Kirkuk, most of it in Baghdad's notorious Abu Ghraib prison for joining an illicit political party.

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Ms. Said, an ethnic Kurd, fared little better. Her husband was executed by Saddam Hussein's regime in 1988. She doesn't know why. A month later, police came to her rented home, gave her and her 4-year-old daughter an hour to pack, and trundled them off to a refugee camp in Iraq's Kurd-dominated Northwest.

For 15 years, she lived in a crowded refugee camp with open latrines and frigid winters. Her daughter's survival, Said says, was a miracle.

Now, both Said and Makafili have returned home to try to rebuild their lives.

But since their return to Kirkuk, they've identified new enemies to replace the vanquished Mr. Hussein. For Said, it's the Kurds. For Makafili, it's the Turkmens and the ethnic Arabs who flooded the city in the 1980s under a government program to "Arabize" this oil-producing hub.

Prior to the US-led invasion of Iraq, some critics worried that Hussein's fall would unleash violent ethnic competition. Here in the multiethnic city of Kirkuk, the hatred and frustration in many residents' voices as they discuss their rivals underscores the city's potential as a flash point.

"[The Kurds] are taking over this city and they have no room in their vision for us,'' says Makafili, a Turkmen politician. "It's like we've replaced Saddam with the Kurds."

For Said, squatting in fetid conditions with about 250 other families under the eaves of the municipal soccer stadium, it's time for the wrongs of the past to be righted. "Kirkuk is an integral part of Kurdistan. The Arabs should go now, so we can take their places."

The Kurdish interest in Kirkuk is tied to their brinkmanship in the Governing Council over the issue of federalism. Kurds would like Iraq's 18 multiethnic and religious governorates to be redrawn into five or so smaller provinces along ethnic and religious lines, and for these provinces to have substantial autonomy.

Most of Iraq's other groups are mistrustful of this plan. "This is a first step towards their declaration of independence,'' says Makafili. "They're manipulating the Americans for their own ends."

Though Kurdish political leaders say they just want their rights to be protected within Iraq, and US officials have been appealing to Kurdish leaders to reduce their demands for full autonomy, worried that it could undermine Iraq's long-term stability.

Last week, at least six people were killed in ethnic clashes in the city - mostly Turkmens and Arabs at the hands of well-armed and organized Kurd militias. In late August, at least 10 were killed in similar incidents.

The tensions in the city have many sources, from Kirkuk's proximity to one of the world's richest oil fields, to the waves of demographic change that swept over the city in the 20th century, to the fears held by small ethnic groups like the Turkmens that they will be marginalized.

Where they intersect is the long, often-violent Kurdish struggle to carve out an ethnic homeland in northern Iraq. In the decolonization process in the early 20th century, the Kurds and their distinct language and culture were split between Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. Separatist movements exist in all three countries to this day.

After the US imposed the no-fly zone to protect the Kurds in Northern Iraq following the first Gulf War, the two principal Kurdish political parties - the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdish Democratic Party - not only consolidated their hold over the area, but strengthened and expanded their armed forces.

Their guerrillas, the peshmerga or "the ones who face death," were the only Iraqi force to participate in the US invasion of Iraq last spring, and were left largely in control of the autonomous north. They served as forward spotters for US artillery and quickly translated their good ties with the US into political facts on the ground.