ON Thursday, while the city of Mosul and much of the rest of northern and western Iraq fell under the control of the fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), something else happened: Kurdish troops took over the disputed city of Kirkuk.
Amid the chaos consuming post-American Iraq, this event signals a crucial shift in Iraq’s balance of power. It is a development that policymakers must not overlook and that anyone paying attention to Iraq’s latest crisis should understand.
It’s not a coincidence that ISIS has successfully seized many areas that have witnessed massive protests against Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the past couple of years.
Al-Maliki, an Arab Shiite party leader who has pursued aggressively sectarian policies, lacks legitimacy in these regions where his political opponents, usually Arab Sunnis, predominate. It’s also not surprising that leaders in the autonomous Kurdistan region in Iraq’s northeast would respond to this volatile situation by moving their resident forces, called Peshmerga, into Kirkuk, which they have surrounded for years.
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What is remarkable is how quickly the Iraqi Army moved out of this much-valued city. Kirkuk is a highly diverse, multilingual city that is claimed by Kurdistan but also long inhabited by Turkish-speaking Turkmens, Arabs and Chaldo-Assyrian Christians; no single group is clearly in the majority. Non-Kurdish communities typically do not want to live under Kurdish control.
Kirkuk also has a significant oil industry. It wasn’t long ago that Iraqi troops and Peshmerga were repeatedly confronting each other in tense standoffs near Kirkuk. Yet, Kurdish forces have now come into control of the city without facing resistance.
Before 2003, Kurdish inhabitants of Kirkuk bore the brunt of decades-long ethnic-cleansing campaigns and provincial gerrymandering orchestrated by Baghdad in order to increase the number of Arabs in the city and its surroundings. As a result, most Kurds have favored a form of dispute resolution that allows increased Kurdish migration into Kirkuk, followed by a referendum in which the people of Kirkuk would decide whether or not they wanted to join Kurdistan.
However, if Kurdish forces maintain their current control over Kirkuk, it would allow Kurdistan to push for a resolution of Kirkuk’s disputed status from a position of strength regardless of the city’s prevailing demographics.
As it turns out, this situation has a historical precedent. In 1918, toward the end of World War I, Allied forces under British command wrested Kirkuk from the control of the Ottoman Empire. After the war ended and the Ottoman Empire disintegrated, multicultural Kirkuk remained under British control at the same time that the mostly Arab state of Iraq was created as a British colony.
Kirkuk and nearby regions, including Mosul, were then claimed by both Iraq and neighboring Turkey in a crisis that, at times, nearly erupted into violence. In 1926, a League of Nations commission appointed to resolve the territorial dispute ruled in Iraq’s favor. British colonial officials in Iraq had close ties with companies interested in developing Kirkuk’s oil. The outcome of the mediation was therefore unsurprising.
Today, it’s Kurdistan and Turkey that have been forging oil ties. Kurdistan is landlocked, but it has been pursuing its own oil contracts with foreign companies and has just completed the construction of a pipeline to a port in Turkey with Ankara’s blessing. In these circumstances, the idea that Kurdistan could take over Kirkuk’s oil production and exports looks plausible.
At the moment, it is impossible to predict whether or not Kirkuk will remain under the control of the Peshmerga indefinitely. What is clear, though, is that the city’s political situation has reached a watershed. For the first time, it has become possible for Kurdish forces to take Kirkuk by force without facing much of a fight from Baghdad.
The questions that remain are whether Kirkuk’s own diverse communities will accept, or endure, Kurdish control — and whether an emboldened Kurdistan might eventually declare independence, unraveling the Iraqi state.
Arbella Bet-Shlimon is an assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of Washington specializing in the modern Middle East.