By Matthew Petti
Ethnicity is a big deal in Kirkuk. Since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the recognition of Kurdish autonomy in the 2005 constitution, both internal and external factions have fought for the right to call the oil-rich, multicultural city their own. Many of these factions, including the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to the north and the Iraqi central government to the south, base their legitimacy on protecting a particular ethnic group—Kurdish, Turkmeni (Turkish) or Arab—within the city. The battle’s stakes are high; a large proportion of Iraq’s oil reserves are in the disputed areas around Kirkuk proper. Yet the ethnic question, so important today, is newer than many people appreciate. The recent history of the census in Kirkuk—and the ethnically-tinged conflicts surrounding it—is an excellent case study in how ideas and material conditions can affect each other, although not always in predictable or easily-controlled ways. It also demonstrates the perils in nation-building projects, especially when neat, systematic ideas encounter the cold reality of complicated local conditions.
The Iraqi census of 1947 includes an incredible amount of detail on the inhabitants of Kirkuk and the surrounding region—with one aspect conspicuously missing. The New York Public Library’s copy, which was nearly falling apart when Columbia’s archivists delivered the tome to me, records almost everything on the liwāʾ (province), qaḍāʾ (district) and naḥiyya (neighborhood/village) level. For example, it notes the number of women who are blind in one eye in one suburb of Kirkuk, men who are married with three wives in another, foreigners from Lebanon in the city center, and families living in huts in another neighborhood. It also tallies people in the District who migrated from Baṣra Province, or work as leather-makers. But for all of these relatively unimportant details, there is no mention of language or ethnicity. One single page notes the size of each religious community in the District as a whole, and all Muslims are counted together—Sunni or Shi’ite, Kurdish or Arab.
The census of 1957, which is also considered Iraq’s last reliable census, is the first one to distinguish between Turkmens, Arabs, and Kurds. This is no coincidence. Ethnic-nationalist politics were becoming a force to be reckoned with in late 20th century Iraq, which is why the state finally began classifying its citizens by ethnicity. But that same force turned the census, like almost every other apparatus of the state, into a tool for ethnic struggle. And these ideological forces became so potent in Kirkuk for a very material reason: oil.
Before the development of the oil industry, the main controversy in the city was over the post-WWI border. Kirkuk, a small market town during the Ottoman Empire, had been the capital of a province within the vilâyet of Mosul; after the First World War and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the vilâyet was disputed between the Republic of Turkey and the British Mandate of Iraq. Arbella Bet-Shlimon writes about local reactions to this dispute in the Journal of Urban History: Turkmeni-speaking urban elites tended to favor Turkish control, and some Kurdish tribes began to consider their land part of a greater “Kurdistan,” but people generally weren’t thinking in ethnic terms. Members of the same family even participated in activism on opposite sides of the Mosul question. Despite the League of Nations and British High Commissioner’s attempts to classify the city “in terms of ‘race,’” as Bet-Shlimon puts it, the British were forced to admit that ethnic lines were “very blurred.”
The British Mandate eventually took control of the whole vilâyet, which turned out to be a handsome prize when oil was discovered near Kirkuk in 1927. Ethnic politics then became much more important when the IPC, a European oil consortium, set up shop. The IPC brought Kurdish-speaking workers from surrounding rural areas into the city, and class divisions began to be understood along ethnic lines. Bet-Shlimon notes that the Iraqi Communist Party was perceived as a primarily Kurdish institution in Kirkuk, opposed by local Turkmeni elites. She writes that by the time General Abd-al-Karim Qasim overthrew the pro-British monarchy and legalized Communist organizations in 1958, political demonstrations in Kirkuk often devolved into ethnic pogroms. Even after the IPC was nationalized, its mark on Kirkuk remained. The census of 1957 reflects these trends; it divides the District of Kirkuk between urban and rural populations, and begins distinguishing between speakers of Arabic, Kurdish, “Turkish,” and “Chaldean-Syriac.” Still, the 1957 census treats this distinction as a question of lugha (language) rather than jinsiyya (nationality) or qawmiyya (ethnicity).
Ethnicity became a hard political distinction after General Qasim was overthrown by the Arab nationalist Baath Party in 1963. Saddam Hussein’s government infamously displaced, discriminated against, and massacred Iraqi Kurds in the pursuit of arabization. Arab settlers were moved into oil-rich regions like Kirkuk in order to solidify the Baath Party’s control. Michael Knights and Ahmed Ali, in their report for the Washington Institute, mention how the Baath Party also used information-gathering as a weapon of ethnic cleansing: at the same time as minorities were pushed off their land and denied access to civil institutions, they were given the option of taṣḥīḥ al-jinsiyya (“ethnicity correction”) to re-register themselves as Arabs. Therefore, the 1977 census marked Kirkuk as an Arab-majority city. The question of Arab/Turkmen/Kurd became an explicitly politically-charged one.
Even after Saddam Hussein was overthrown and executed, his ghost continued to haunt Kirkuk. American occupation authorities divided Iraq between the KRG, which had already been de facto sovereign over some Kurdish-majority areas, and the federal government in Baghdad. However, smaller non-Arab non-Kurdish minorities (like the Chaldeans and Turkmens) as well as ethnically mixed settlements made some places hard to divide neatly. Kirkuk, which in 2017 provided half of the KRG’s oil revenues, saw one of the thorniest disputes. Article 140 of the new Iraqi constitution set a 2007 deadline for a referendum in Kirkuk, which would determine whether the city fell under KRG control. But in order to hold a referendum, there would have to a census to decide who can vote. Thanks to the Kirkuk dispute, there still hasn’t been another census, more than a decade past the original deadline—neither in Kirkuk nor in the rest of Iraq. Needless to say, the referendum was never held.
Instead, various factions have tried to take matters into their own hands. Kurds moved back into the city after 2003, a move which Kurdish leaders see as a reversal of the Baath Party legacy but Arab and Turkmeni leaders believe is “demographic manipulation.” (Arabs fear a repeat of the alleged anti-Arab retribution attacks by Kurdish militias elsewhere in the KRG, while Turkmens see their historic presence in the city erased by both Arab and Kurdish nationalism.) Lacking a reliable census, and facing rapid demographic changes, Kirkuk’s authorities tried to compile voter rolls from ration cards. But even this became a disputed battleground, as voters gave the ration authorities false addresses, according to Knights and Ali, sacrificing food to inflate their nationalist parties’ numbers. Eventually, the question was settled in blood. After the Iraqi Army collapsed in 2014 during the ISIS uprising, the KRG sent its own militias into the city, putting it under de facto Kurdish authority. But in response to an extralegal KRG-sponsored referendum on Kurdish secession in September 2017, the Iraqi federal government launched a military campaign against the KRG. Pro-federal militias began by seizing Kirkuk, and many Kurds fled the city. Today the city remains tense, with reports of irregularities and Turkmeni protests during the May 2018 elections.
It’s tempting to see oil politics and nationalist politics as mutually-exclusive explanations for Kirkuk’s woes. If the groups fighting for Kirkuk are motivated by cash, then they can’t be thinking about grand ideological questions, and vice versa. But nationalism in Kirkuk is a result of oil. The city’s three main ethnic groups are defined by their relationship to both the petroleum industry and the external powers trying to control it. But even as Kirkuk’s inhabitants embrace ethnic politics, they frustrate outside authorities’ attempts to tally the city’s ethnic groups. Once the dust settles from the latest round of fighting, whoever controls Kirkuk may try to wade into the city’s complex local politics—and find deceptively simple solutions slipping from their grasp.
Matthew, a junior at Columbia University, has been published in Reason Magazine, the National Interest, and America Magazine. He has been awarded a Foreign Language Area Studies fellowship for the summer of 2018.