Kirkuk on the Brink of War

By Elie Joe Dergham & Ramy Jabbour

Following the Kirkuk liberation from ISIS, as well as the Kurdish independence referendum in Iraq, questions were raised on the future of the Iraqi disputed territories that include the Kirkuk governorate. The communal diversity in the governorate in addition to the presence of natural reserves had led to continuous tensions between the different ethnicities and sectarian groups for decades. Kirkuk has long been a melting pot of different ethnic, confessional, and political groups. Moreover, it is home to Arabs (mostly Sunnis), Kurds, Turkmen (Shiite and Sunni), Kakai and a variety of Islamic, Christian and other sects. Historically, Kurds see Kirkuk, in northeast Iraq, as their cultural capital. Moreover, the former Iraqi President and the Kurdish leader Jalal Talbani refers to Kirkuk as the “Jerusalem of Kurds”[1]. The inclusion of Kirkuk in the referendum has led to predictions of violence following the vote. What will be the future of the Kirkuk disputed areas following the referendum? Will the regional and neighboring states rejection for the referendum lead to a direct or at least proxy military intervention to change the dynamics in the governorate and set pressure on the Kurdish leadership? 

Background: Historical Divisions

Kirkuk’s oil resources have made it a significant region of contention among different national and local stakeholders. This has led to waves of significant demographic shifts as different stakeholders and groups try to benefit from its oil revenues or control them. After the Baath party came to power in 1968 with its Arab nationalistic ideology, Kirkuk was increasingly subject to “Arabization” policies. The regime attempted to shift ethnic demographics in favor of Arabs by limiting the Kurdish property ownership, expelling Kurdish civil servants from Kirkuk, and preventing the return of Kurdish residents who left the governorate. On the other hand, the Baath regime resettled hundreds of thousands of Arabs from other parts of Iraq there[2]. Moreover, these policies included mass killing of Kirkuk’s Kurdish residents, and the demolishing of Kurdish villages. A CIA report mentioned that satellite photography showed the destructive measures occurred in at least 500 villages, two-thirds of which are north and northeast of Kirkuk[3]. The peak of the “Arabization” policies was in what became known as the “Anfal” campaign from February until September 1988[4]. Thus, the ongoing strife between Arabs, Turkmens, and Kurds can be traced to the forced demographic and property shift of Saddam’s rule.

Kirkuk in Post Saddam Regime

Following the fall of Saddam’s Baathist regime after the US invasion to Iraq in 2003, the Kurds were able to gain a dominant political influence in Kirkuk. There historical battle against the Baathist regime in addition to the international support allowed the Kurds to push for the inclusion of Article 58 in the 2003 Iraqi Transitional Administrative Law, which functioned as an interim constitution. This article called for actions to “remedy” the forced demographic changes taken under Saddam rule specifically in Kirkuk.[5] The main requirements of Article 58 were transferred into the 2005 Iraqi Constitution through Article 140, which required all steps of Article 58 to be completed, and a referendum to be held no later than end of 2007 to determine the status of Kirkuk and other Disputed Territories based on the “will of their populations[6].” However, this referendum has never been scheduled. The two articles initiated flood of Kurdish returnees, with efforts to increase local political control that increased tensions with other communities.

ISIS Assault on Kirkuk and the Immediate Result

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) quickly withdrew from their positions in Kirkuk following ISIS assault in June 2014. ISIS captured the Arab-majority areas of Kirkuk governorate, prompting mass displacement. As ISIS advanced on Kirkuk city, Kurdish Security Forces deployed in the city and surrounding areas defending the region from the Islamic state advance. The support of US-led Coalition air strikes in addition to the arrival of volunteers from other Kurdish areas, helped the Kurdish forces successfully halt ISIL’s advance[7]. Meanwhile, the Badr Organization[8] deployed to rural Kirkuk fought with a large component of locally recruited Shi’a Turkmen fighters, for a counter-offensive campaign to retake Bashir region which marked the entry of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) into Kirkuk’s security dynamics[9].

Kurdish actors

The leftist Iraqi-Kurdish political party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), remains the most dominate Kurdish actor in Kirkuk with an increasing presence of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) in this region. The PUK-led Peshmerga (Unit 70) and Kurdish Asayish forces affiliated with the KDP and the PUK were present in Kirkuk prior to 2014. Since the Iraqi army was broken and demoralized after the losses against ISIS in Mosul and Tikrit, Kurdish Security Forces took exclusive control of Kirkuk city and its immediate environs, including the Kirkuk oil field, and the K-1 military base[10]. Furthermore, PUK forces seized control of the area around Kirkuk city, KDP-led forces secured most of Kirkuk’s oil assets, including the Avaneh dome of the Kirkuk oil field, and the Bai Hassan field in Dibis district. PUK-affiliated forces held on to the Baba dome of the Kirkuk field, and the Khabbaz field[11]. Although both actors share the same enemy and possible opponents (PMF and Shiite Turkmen militias), tensions appeared between them over the control of oil resources in Kirkuk. As an example, forces loyal to the PUK seized an oil facility in Kirkuk and briefly suspended oil flows, and threatened further action after the KRG President Barazani cut a deal with Baghdad in 2016 to equally split the revenues.[12] Although the historic decision by the President of the Kurdistan region Massoud Barazani for a referendum to decide on the future of Iraqi Kurdistan was not accepted by all Kurdish factors (factions in the PUK, Gorran, independent actors), however the Kurdish leader has succeeded to impose his agenda on the other Kurdish political actors.


Turkmens, as the third largest ethnicity in Iraq, live almost in every province from Basra in the south to Duhok in the north. Yet, they are concentrated in a land of 50 kilometers wide that stretches from the north and west of Iraq to the southeast. One of the main provinces that the Turkmens mainly reside in is the province of Kirkuk. As Kurds and other minorities, Turkmen were oppressed by the Baathist regime, however they remained in Kirkuk throughout the forced expulsion campaigns conducted by Saddam Hussein[13]. After the fall of the Baathist dictatorship in 2003, masses of Turkmen returned and claimed their rights and properties[14]. Another shifting moment in the history of Iraq Turkmen was in the rise of ISIS in 2014. The ethnic minority have had divided allegiances among ISIS or the Iraq State along the sectarian lines. Their fears rose when Sunni Turkmen dominated cities like Tal Afar in the neighboring Nineveh province fell quickly to ISIS control. In the Kirkuk battle, thousands of Turkmen signed up with the local authorities to fight ISIS. On the other hand, there was a large number of ISIS fighters across the field from Turkmen origins. The battle of Kirkuk increased the Turkmen division[15].

On the other hand, the Shia Turkmen have been an essential part of the popular mobilization force (PMF) and have received training and backing from Iranian dominated groups[16]. Taking the above mentioned factors, Turkmens have growing concerns with the recent Kurdish referendum of independence. A local Turkmen leader view the growing Kurdish as a threat to the Turkmen character and presence in the region. Furthermore, they have seen the recent events as another oppression on their presence in the region which will push them to search for an external partner in order to back them up against the Kurd’s. The “Nationalist” Turkmen as they are referred to have forged close links with Turkey. The “Islamist Shiites” Turkmen have found support in Al Dawa Party and Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) that have close links to Iran[17].

Shia Kirkuk

The Arab population arrived to the Kirkuk region during the Saddam Hussein’s mass re-settlement campaign. A small number of Shia Arab arrived and settled in the Kirkuk region mostly in Hawija district. When the regime fell, Shia Leader Muqtada Sadr reaffirmed and encouraged the Arab population in Kirkuk to be an active member in the Iraqi state and to remain in Kirkuk. In April 2006, reports suggested that Sadrist fighters had arrived in Kirkuk to swell Arab numbers and deliver the message to the Kurds that they should not take their seizure of Kirkuk for granted. There is no evidence that such fighters arrived in significant numbers but the threat was clear: should the Kurds move on Kirkuk, the Arabs would counter[18]. During the rise of ISIS, Shia villages and neighborhoods were targeted and persecuted as ISIS swept through the province. As the Iraq government and the PMF fought back, many Shiite militias rushed into the province under the pretext of protecting and securing Shiite neighborhoods liberated from ISIS control. Before the referendum, the Shiite militiamen set up a string of bases just 10 kilometers from the city of Kirkuk in Taza Khurmatu[19]. It was a mutual agreement between Kurds and the PMF who were fighting a common enemy. The PMF that was present and operated in the Kirkuk area consist of many militias but the most influential group is the Badr Organization that has a direct allegiance to Iran. Although there are other groups like the Abbas Brigade, the Badr organization has been able to be more active and to support to local Turkmen leaders[20]. As these combined forces of Kurds-Turkmen and Arab Shiites forces pushed ISIS back, tensions have risen between them. Human Right Watch accused the Kurds of bulldozing and banishing hundreds of Arabs from Kirkuk province[21]. Furthermore, Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), insisted that the Shiite militiamen would be “prohibited under any circumstances” from entering the city[22].

Fall of Kirkuk and the PUK Betrayal

Baghdad has exercised its military power swiftly in Kirkuk province, reasserting territorial control over critical infrastructure. The Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service, an independent, organization formed by the U.S after its invasion, alongside the Popular Mobilization Forces commanded by Mohandes, a force with a sizable number of Iranian backed militias, launched an attack recaptured the oil infrastructure fields and regained most of the territorial disputed areas in Kirkuk with less than 24 hours. The military success of the PMF and the Iraqi army came after few days of two important developments: Iranian Qassem Suleimani’s visit to Kurdistan region and Bafel Talibani’s, son of Jalal Talibani, statement that “the disputed areas need joint administration under the latest election results to defuse the crisis, the formation of a new provincial council and the appointment of a new governor if necessary, because the city of Kirkuk is larger than any political party or party”. It seems that the Iranian leadership succeeded to play on the contradictions in the PUK and benefit from its historical relations with this party to send a strong message to Barazani. According to several sources including a report from Stratfor, a likely agreement between Baghdad and certain members of PUK occurred which stated on leaving the city of Kirkuk in the hands of Iraqi forces and PMF[23]. The agreement will initiate the formation of Sulemani, Halabjah and Kirkuk region where the Iraqi government will pay salaries of public employees and peshmerga in the PUK zone. Moreover, the Iraqi army will return to pre-ISIS attacks deployment in 2014, and a government would be formed for the new region.


The Turkish leadership seems really upset from the Kurdish referendum and were expecting that President Barazani will not go the way. Erdogan perceived KRG’s decision as a personal insult and thus he may push for a change in Kurdish leadership directly. According to Dr. Elie Abou Aoun, the director of Middle East & North Africa programs at the United States Institute for Peace (USIP), the Turkish leadership may use the attacks occurring against the Turkmen minority as an excuse to legitimize an intervention in the Kirkuk region in the future. However, Abou Aoun added that a big-scale Turkish intervention in the Kurdish region is unlikely since it will trigger Kurdish unity among all factions and will encourage the PKK to upscale their military campaign against Turkey.

Although the PMF supported by the Iraqi army retook a big part of the disputed areas in Kirkuk, Abou Aoun sees that it is unexpected to have a long-scale Iranian backed militias’ presence in the Kurdish region. Iran will not upset Turkey on one hand with Shiite militias present on its borders, and the militias will also find a difficulty to hold the grounds in Kurdistan-Iraq since Kurds can quickly become an insurgent force hiding in the mountains. He added that some factions in the PUK have strategic relations with Iran which shifted the situation in Kirkuk.

Iraqi army succeeded in quickly regaining Kirkuk region, a long term war against the Peshmerga all over the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) is unexpected. The Iraqi army is not ready for another brutal war and the US will most probably interfere to prevent a long-scale war between its allies. After the latest incidents in Kirkuk, the risk of clashes between the different Kurdish players (PUK internal clashes or PUK-KDP clashes) are high. All the eyes will be focused on Barazani’s alternatives and which path will he choose to take.


[2] Galletti, P. (2005). “Kirkuk: The Pivot of Balance in Iraq Past and Present,” Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies 19, retrieved from:

[3] Iraq-Turkey-Iran, The Kurdish Insurgencies. (1988). Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), retrieved from:

[4] HRW. (2004). Background: Forced Displacement and Arabization of Northern Iraq, Human Rights Watch, retrieved from:

[5] Iraqi Interim Constitution, Article 58: (A) The Iraqi Transitional Government, and especially the Iraqi Property Claims Commission and other relevant bodies, 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 correcting nationality (…)

Retrieved from:—e.htm

[6] Iraqi Constitution (2005), Article 150.  (1) The executive authority shall undertake the necessary steps to complete the implementation of the requirements of all subparagraphs of Article 58 of the Transitional Administrative Law.(2) The responsibility placed upon the executive branch of the Iraqi Transitional

Government stipulated in Article 58 of the Transitional Administrative Law shall extend and continue to the executive authority elected in accordance with this Constitution, provided that it accomplishes completely (normalization and census and concludes with a referendum in Kirkuk and other disputed territories to determine the will of their citizens), by a date not to exceed the 31st of December 2007 (..)

Retrieved from:

[7] Shea, N. (2016). Kurds Fight to Preserve ‘the Other Iraq, The National Geographic, retrieved from:

[8] One of the PMF’s militias

[9] “Shiite Badr Brigades Clashes with ISIS in Kirkuk,” Daily Sabah, June 29, 2014, retrieved from:

[10] Horvath, A. (2017). Iraq after ISIL: Kirkuk, Global Public Policy Institute, retrieved from:

[11] Assessments. (2014). Iraq: Kurdish Options Limited in Northern Oil Fields, Stratfor, retrieved from:

[12] Reuters Staff (2017). Kirkuk oil flows in jeopardy again as Kurdish tensions grow, Reuters, retrieved from:

[13] ORSAM (2016). The Situation of Turkmens and the Turkmen areas after ISIS, Report No: 203

[14] Galletti M (2005). Kirkuk: The Pivot of Balance in Iraq Past and Present, Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, Vol. 19, no. 2, 2005

[15] Shams, A. (2017).  Iraq’s Turkmen mobilize for a post-ISIL future, Al Jazeera, retrieved from:

[16] International Crisis Group (2006) Iraq and The Kurds: The Brewing Battle Over Kirkuk, Middle East Report N°56

[17] Ibid

[18] International Crisis Group (2006) Iraq and The Kurds: The Brewing Battle Over Kirkuk, Middle East Report N°56

[19] Salama, Vivian. (2015). Iraq Shiite militias rush to defend Kirkuk from ISIL, The National, retrieved from:

[20] Horvath, A. (2017). Kirkuk,GPPi, retrieved from:

[21] HRW (2016). KRG: Kurdish Forces Ejecting Arabs In Kirkuk, Human Rights Watch, retrieved from:

[22] Salama, Vivian. (2015). Iraq Shiite militias rush to defend Kirkuk from ISIL, The National, retrieved from: