Transcon - Intensive, Relevant French and Arabic Instruction since May 2005

Kirkuk, Northern Iraq Update

From 2004 to 2006, we had a rule in Kirkuk that every mobile patrol team and every guard position forward of our base had to be manned by one Kurd, one Arab and one Turkman. It was both a short-term and a long-term policy. Short-term, it was intended to defuse tensions with local residents and civilian workers on our construction site. Long term, it was intended to defuse tensions within our own security force and, over time, create a sense of cohesion within that same force.

The three-man mobile patrol teams would leave our camp in pickup utes (utilities) on random timings and random patrol routes. These patrols would disrupt any attempts by insurgents to set up mortar positions to attack our camp. The three-man static guard positions set up forward of our camp were also established at random positions and timings. They would search vehicles carrying construction workers from all three different ethnicities. If the approaching vehicle was full of Arabs, then the Arab on the security team would take lead in speaking to the occupants, explaining the search procedure and engaging in some good ole jolly banter. The Turkman and the Kurd would conduct the search while the banter continued between the Arabs. If a car full of Kurdish workers approached then the Kurd took lead with the interaction while the Arab and the Turkman did the searching. Ditto if a car full of Turkmen approached the temporary CP (checkpoint).

There is a fancy acronym for these types of searches and mobile patrols, RAM (Random Anti-terrorist Measures). There is also another fancy acronym for this type of work, VAP (Vital Asset Protection) that vital asset would be the power station we were building). The idea was, that by forcing individuals from the warring ethnic factions to work side-by-side, day-in, day-out, that the differences between them would gradually fade and, over time, they would become mates. And it did work. Back then, we didn’t know what RAM and VAP were, we were just operating off an outdated concept called common sense.

By the end of that particular project, our guys were preparing for several marriages between the various members of the different ethnic tribes. But those days are long gone. Now, over ten years later, the Kurds have just had a major split within their own community that has culminated in the loss of their prized city of Kirkuk.

Back in the noughties, territorial control over Kirkuk was mixed. The Kurds controlled the North of the city and were expanding that control with the ‘illegal’ construction of houses on the north-eastern side of the city. Basically, if you were a Kurd, you could buy and sell plots of land and houses built without council city permission in that area of the city. If you were an Arab or a Turkman, forget it, ‘You can’t buy or build here, that’s illegal!’. There was a large Turkman population in the centre and immediately South of the city around our power station. The Arabs had a strong presence in the South of Kirkuk and in the rural areas to the West of the city, much of which was concentrated in the hands of the powerful Obeidi tribe. During the recent onslaught of Islamic State in Northern Iraq, the Iraqi Army deserted the city of Kirkuk allowing Kurdish forces to take full, unchallenged control of the city. This was just a natural progression from the state of affairs back in the noughties.

If anybody had told me in 2006 that the Kurds would completely lose control of Kirkuk to Iraqi forces from Baghdad I would have laughed at them. After all, I drink and I know things. And one of the things I knew back then was that the Iraqi government couldn’t even control Baghdad. The suggestion that they could impose their will on Kirkuk was laughable. Well, …

International media has just reported the hasty retreat of Kurdish forces and take-over of Kirkuk by Iraqi Forces. True, it is a little more complicated than just a turnaround in the fortunes of Iraqi forces. To the North, President Erdogan told the Kurds to abandon any hopes of independence or face starvation from a Turkish-imposed blockade. To the East, Iranian-supplied militias initially sent in to fight Islamic State in Northern Iraq, then turned their guns on Kirkuk. And Baghdad to the South, flush with weapons and cash from both Iran and the United States, decided to finally settle their outstanding score with the independence-seeking Kurds.

What could possibly be the source of such angst over one city? Two things. One just as important as the other. Firstly, the Kurdish people are spread across four different nations; North-eastern Iraq, Western Iran, Eastern Turkey and North-eastern Syria. If the Kurds achieve an independent, autonomous state in any one of those four states then the other three will be inflamed with the same desire for independence. And more importantly, the first state to achieve such independence will be used as an operational base to launch whatever ‘actions’ may be required to achieve that same independence in the other states. Not going to happen. The United States will tell the Kurds that, ‘Now is not the time’. The Syrians, Iranians, Turks and Arabs in Baghdad will warn them first. If the warning is not heeded they will simply crush the Kurds, literally, if necessary.  

Secondly, oil. Lots of it. The Kirkuk fields contain somewhere between 10 and 12 billion barrels of recoverable oil. Due to bad management during the Saddam Hussein years, the quality is not as good as the ‘light, sweet crude’ that is extracted from the fields in Libya. But nobody is looking at this sort of detail at the moment. What counts is the black gold beneath the surface that has the potential to finance an independent state.

The recent Kurdish referendum as the first official step to declaring independence was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Believing all diplomatic options had been exhausted, Iraqi and Iranian forces attacked Kirkuk from the South. Before the military operation was launched, Baghdad and Tehran had successfully split Kurdish forces in two by doing a deal with one of the two major political powers in Kurdistan, the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) that controls the East of Kurdistan and the main gateways to Iran. The troops of the other main bloc, the PDK (Kurdistan Democratic Party) that control central and northern Kurdistan, were hung out to dry in the face of the advancing Iraqi and Iranian forces.

Kurdish political leaders from the PDK who backed the move toward Kurdish independence have had to uproot families, homes and businesses and are now banned from the city. The PUK will now rule Kirkuk uncontested under the thumb of their masters in Baghdad and Tehran. Needless to say, US influence has been side-lined in the whole affair.

As for our Kurdish, Arabic and Turkmanic friends from the power station, many of them have been split back into various branches of the security forces that are once again organised along ethnic and tribal lines. As for the Kurds, they now control less territory, oil and border customs revenue than after the 2003 US-led invasion. The referendum on Kurdish independence was just a step too far for every power in the region, even the US. On the wider horizon, it is the US that has taken the biggest hit, as the Kurds, their only true ally in the region, have just been militarily and financially crippled.