Since the U.S. military withdrew over the Kuwaiti border on December 18, 2011, the conflict in Iraq has morphed into a dangerous new phase where oil interests and bitter ethnic politics have left vulnerable, ordinary Iraqis caught in the middle. The unresolved issues of Kurdish autonomy combined with re-escalating Sunni-Shi`a discord are undergirded not solely by mere ideological drivers, but by an economic power struggle over the present and future wealth of the country’s oil and gas reserves. This contest is especially evident in the oil-rich northern Iraqi province of Kirkuk.[1]

Kirkuk is the gateway to, although not a part of, northern Iraq’s relatively stable Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) area and is part of a territorial tug of war framed through a prism of ethnic rivalry between the KRG’s leader, President Massoud Barzani, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.[2] This rivalry is supported by the importance of who will control Kirkuk’s oil and gas fields. Kirkuk holds some of the world’s most sought after petroleum reserves, making the future of who administers it critical to both the KRG and Baghdad. Kirkuk Province, with its flashpoint town of Hawija, has helped to reenergize al-Qa`ida’s Islamic State of Iraq, which is now known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).[3] The uncompromising manner in which Baghdad dealt with Sunni discontent in Hawija served as a catalyst for a broadening protest movement as well as an enabling factor for the resurgence of the country’s al-Qa`ida branch that has transformed from a local to a now regional outfit.

This article argues that the still unresolved status of Kirkuk may be the most critical issue for the future integrity of the Iraqi state. It first discusses the growing hostility between Kurds in Kirkuk and in the KRG with al-Maliki’s central government in Baghdad, and then shows how rising discontent among Sunni Arabs in Kirkuk Province serves as a further destabilizing factor. The article finds that while much of Iraq is suffering under an upsurge in religio-political violence in 2013, Kirkuk is a realm unto itself of insurgent aims due to the nature of its ethnic and sectarian complexity and the economic consequences of its future control. Kurdish state actors in Kirkuk and Erbil often feel that they are being challenged by both Sunni Arabs from various insurgent movements and Shi`a Arabs from either the al-Maliki government or non-state Shi`a militias who they believe share a common disdain for Kurdish ethno-nationalism.

Following the 1990-1991 Gulf War and the late President Saddam Hussein’s retribution against northern Kurds who had been fighting the post-colonial Iraqi state sporadically since 1961,[4] a de facto autonomous Kurdish governance zone was established in the north. A border formed that separated regular Iraqi army troops with Kurdish peshmerga (Kurdish fighters). The two principle Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), firmly gained control of the three northern Iraqi provinces of Dohuk, Erbil and Sulaymaniyya along with northeastern portions of Ninawa and Diyala provinces, and a small patch of Salah al-Din Province.[5]

When the post-Saddam constitution was adopted in October 2005, the stage was set for Kurdish and Shi`a empowerment, albeit of very different strains.[6] For Kurdish leaders, one of the key achievements, at least in theory, was Article 140 of the constitution that sought to redress the decades-long Ba`athist Arabization program. Under the large-scale population shuffle in the 1970s, Kurdish villagers were forcibly displaced and northern areas were repopulated with Arab tribes from western Iraq. The Ba`ath Party incentivized sympathetic Sunni Arab tribesmen to resettle in the cooler, irrigated lands of the traditionally Kurdish-majority north.[7] Other non-Arab minorities, including Turkmen and Assyrians, were often expelled en masse. Many were either killed or fled Iraq altogether. The peak of the program culminated in the al-Anfal campaign that took place from February to September 1988 in which chemical weapons were ultimately used at the tail end of the Iran-Iraq war.[8]

Kirkuk city, located outside of the “no fly zone” beneath the so-called Green Line[9] and therefore still under the control of Baghdad, became the focus of ongoing Arabization well after 1991. Cognizant of Kirkuk’s intrinsic value, Ba`athist officials actively altered the city’s contested demographics primarily with Arab Shi`a from southern Iraq throughout the 1990s.[10] The plebiscite on the territorial status of Kirkuk vaguely outlined in Article 140—which could result in its formal annexation by the KRG—has failed to come to fruition since 2007 when it was originally scheduled to occur. This left the future of Kirkuk open to endless political infighting among Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, which enabled insurgent attacks in the interim.[11] Meanwhile, the KRG has been trying to use cash and land grants to encourage Kurds to re-inhabit villages below the Green Line to create a deeper Kurdish foothold in the disputed territories, which could be useful in case of a future census or referendum.[12]

A Tense Green Line: Renewed Hostility Between Kurds and the Central Government
The key issue along the Green Line is the so-called Disputed Territories or Disputed Internal Boundaries.[13] These are districts within provinces running along the axis from northern Ninawa through Kirkuk southeast to Diyala which many Kurds want to see enveloped into the comparatively more secure KRG at some point. It is in these districts where ethnic politics meet the struggle over oil rights between Erbil and Baghdad’s Oil Ministry. Pipelines and oil installations here are therefore more prone to insurgent attacks than those inside the KRG itself.

The lucrative yet vastly underperforming Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline has been constantly targeted by improvised explosive devices (IED) throughout mid-2013.[14] Foreign oil companies are forced to choose between federal and Kurdish sides in terms of who controls what piece of territory, upon which there is no commonly agreed final determination. In September 2013, for example, BP signed a deal with the al-Maliki government to revamp Kirkuk’s dilapidated primary oil field, sparking a bellicose reaction from the KRG. A spokesman from the KRG’s Ministry of Natural Resources stated: “No company will be permitted to work in any part of the disputed territories including Kirkuk without formal approval and involvement of the KRG.”[15] Caught in the middle are Kirkuk’s provincial authorities, who are trapped between an outdated Ba`ath period hydrocarbons law and an ambiguously interpreted constitution that they feel the al-Maliki government is exploiting to hold on to Kirkuk’s wealth.[16]

Following the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, tensions along the Green Line synchronously ramped up in two ways. Peshmerga forces sought to further consolidate their control of areas they ardently view as historic Kurdish areas, and insurgent groups like the ISIL and Ba`athist fighters began to target security forces and civilians in Ninawa, Kirkuk, Salah al-Din, and Diyala with increasing ferocity. In the autumn of 2012, al-Maliki created the Dijla Operations Command to establish a stronger federal security presence along the Baghdad-controlled side of the Green Line—an act that the KRG’s Peshmerga Ministry viewed as an unvarnished military provocation by the federal government. While the Dijla Operations Command was welcomed by segments of the disenfranchised Arab community in Kirkuk and met with mixed reactions by Turkmen whose local political leadership is divided about whether to side with security conscious Kurdish interests or those of Ankara,[17] local Kurdish politicians made their concerns known in no uncertain terms.

Kirkuk’s Kurds view the creation of the Dijla Operations Command as a sign of al-Maliki further centralizing Baghdad’s authority in what is ideally meant to be a federalized Iraqi state at least in constitutional terms. Some Kurdish Kirkukis, both civilians and security forces alike, criticized al-Maliki’s alleged allegiance to Tehran and his need to increase his own personal power.[18] They also cited the presence of ethnic-Arab Dijla troops as reminiscent of the Ba`athist Arabization program despite the fact that al-Maliki is a practicing Shi`a who was an anti-Saddam activist as an exiled member of the Da`wa Party in the 1980s.

By mid-November 2012, both Kurds and federal forces were reportedly steadily increasing their armaments.[19] A deadly incident in Tuz Khurmatu, in northeastern Salah al-Din Province, between PUK-affiliated peshmerga and Iraqi forces on November 16 had some Iraqis fearing the two sides were on the brink of war.[20] Although a major armed conflict between the two sides on what is essentially a front line has thus far failed to materialize, keeping an eye on one another along the Green Line makes the prospect of robustly collaborating on stemming their common foes in the ISIL and the Jaysh Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshabandi (JRTN) movement more problematic.

Al-Maliki’s forces are facing opposition from several sides in the provinces with disputed districts. Although the ISIL is most associated with sectarian violence, it is also involved in anti-state violence and ethnic tension between Arabs and Kurds. The ISIL and other Arab-dominated takfiri groups are locked in an ongoing battle with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) Popular Protection Units (YPG) militia in northeastern Syria.[21] The ISIL is attempting to stem the process of rudimentary sub-state formation by the PYD akin to the 1990s-era KRG in Iraq that could one day rupture Syria’s territorial integrity. The ISIL views the secular KRG’s maneuvers in Iraq’s disputed territories as a threat to Islamism and Arab identity. For the ISIL in both the Syria and Iraq cases, hardline Salafism must trump divisive ethnic politics.

Owing to the centrality of the oil issue in the broader context of Iraq’s instability, protests over the mismanagement of oil wealth by political elites have also erupted in the capital with demonstrators angrily chanting “oil is for the people, not the thieves.”[22] In the context of Iraq’s rather monolithic economy so heavily dependent on oil production and exports, which account for 90% of its income, the future of the country’s oil industry is of utmost importance to Baghdad, the KRG and the various insurgent movements that seek to harm both entities.[23]

Sunni Arab Discontent in Kirkuk after Hawija
In addition to the renewed tensions between Kurds and Baghdad, the al-Maliki government is also facing rising Sunni Arab discontent in Kirkuk Province. As al-Maliki began paving the way for a third term in office following a somewhat controversial court decision in August 2013, disenchanted Iraqis of all stripes had already begun to bristle at the rise of a new authoritarian leader.[24] Of these segments, Sunni Arabs, who have been transitioning into a minority status over the past decade, have been the most vocal. This tension has been especially evident in Kirkuk Province.

In post-Ba`athist Iraq, Sunni Arab marginalization has become so acute in the era of rule by al-Maliki’s perceived Shi`a chauvinism and with continuing Kurdish economic and territorial gains in the north that a serious spike in violence is already well underway.[25] Al-Maliki’s humiliation of several prominent Sunni political elites coupled with militarization along the Sunni Arab side of the Green Line helped set the stage for the resurgence of the ISIL.[26]

The spark of much of the recent conflict took place in the restive town of Hawija in Kirkuk Province. Hawija was once referred to by the U.S. military as the “Anbar of the North” due to the danger the town posed to coalition troops.[27] Today, government and Kurdish forces are contending with an area where Sunni militancy never died but was merely tamped down for a period during the coalition’s concerted counterinsurgency troop surge.

On April 23, 2013, Iraqi security forces led by the Army’s 12th Division attacked a Sunni Arab protest camp in Hawija west of Kirkuk City.[28] The central government claimed they were engaging armed elements enmeshed within the sit-in protestors.[29] In turn, protestors claimed they were simply attacked when unarmed.[30] In the immediate aftermath of the incident in Hawija, ordinary Sunni tribesmen took up arms against government targets.[31] Meanwhile, insurgents belonging to the ISIL ramped up a series of suicide attacks across poorly secured northern cities like Mosul, Kirkuk and Tuz Khurmatu beneath the Green Line. The situation in Hawija also helped mobilize the JRTN. The JRTN—whose name indicates it is a militant Sufi outfit unlike the Salafi-jihadi al-Qa`ida—styles itself as a champion of Iraq’s disenchanted Sunni Arabs, particularly in northern areas that abut districts disputed with Kurds.[32]

Several security sources in Kirkuk Province described die-hard Ba`athist elements in the JRTN[33] as seeking to reverse Kurdish territorial gains and ambitions by employing methods commonly associated with Sunni insurgent groups, such as IEDs and ambushes. The JRTN—led at least nominally by Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, Iraq’s vice president under Saddam—is quite active along the Green Line according to local security force leaders.[34]

In the wake of the U.S. troop withdrawal, the JRTN has transformed its message from a nationalist anti-occupation resistance force to one bent on attacking the interests of the Iran-friendly, Shi`a-dominated al-Maliki government in Baghdad as well as Kurds who it disdains for their ethnic separatism.[35] Hawija has again become a key node of Sunni militancy within Iraq as an area where historic Ba`athist sympathy combined with years of ISI violence have led groups like the JRTN and ISIL to find new common cause in anti-Shi`a, anti-government, and anti-Kurdish mass casualty attacks.[36]

An Iraqi police commander in Dibis complained that the withdrawal of U.S. troops not only removed the buffer between Iraqi Army and peshmerga tensions, but also allowed for relatively unimpeded ISIL movement. In 2007, a major from the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division was quoted as saying: “The Hawija area will be an obstacle to militants, rather than a pathway for them.”[37] Now that the American obstacle has been removed, Hawija is flush with Sunni ire as well as insurgency.

Along the Green Line, there is a confluence between ISIL Salafi-jihadism and anachronistic Ba`athist patriotism emphasized by the JRTN. Insurgents of both strains mutually seek to harm agents of the al-Maliki government or anyone they see as traitors. Police in Dbis said the difference between the ISIL and JRTN was tactical (i.e., suicide VBIEDS vs. IEDs), but their goals were presently the same in terms of restoring Sunni Arab supremacy in Iraq. In the view of many Kurds, as the ISIL has evolved from a largely Iraq-focused organization into a regional one with its involvement in the Syrian civil war, it has become a multi-front militant outfit simultaneously waging takfiri jihad while also attacking Kurds in the name of Arab identity politics.

Although violence in Iraq had been on a net decline at least in terms of hard casualty figures since the U.S. troop surge in 2007-2008, beginning in April 2013 Iraq has seen the highest cluster of death tolls since 2008.[38] Alongside the civilian and security force death figures, a significant uptick against northern oil export infrastructure has occurred, particularly affecting Ninawa and Kirkuk provinces.

The frequency of IED attacks on the crude export pipeline connecting Kirkuk’s supergiant oil field to the port city of Ceyhan in southern Turkey’s Adana Province has conservatively become a weekly occurrence. An official from the state-owned North Oil Company cited some 37 attacks on the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline between late June and late August 2013 alone.[39] The constant disruptions in output on the already well-aged pipes may accelerate the fragmentation of Iraq’s tenuous federal governance arrangement. The KRG, based in the northern city of Erbil, seeks to create new routes to Turkey entirely within territory under its control, thereby creating potentially lucrative energy sector independence from Baghdad.[40] The persistent attacks on federally controlled pipelines both hurt Baghdad economically and exacerbate Arab-Kurdish tensions. They also help to justify the Kurds’ arguments for managing their own natural resource exports.

The KRG is simultaneously entertaining foreign investors to economically solidify its control over the three northern provinces of Dohuk, Erbil and Sulaymaniyya, while bolstering peshmerga positions along the Green Line that separates KRG-controlled Kurdistan from Arab-majority Iraq.

In the decade since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, fears remain that Iraq might fracture along ethnic, sectarian and economic lines. Although the ISI/ISIL has escalated attacks since late 2012, the Hawija incident and the war in Syria seem to have emboldened it much more in recent months.[41] The KRG’s peshmerga and Asayish forces have also become more assertive after Hawija to counter the twin threats of reinvigorated Sunni militancy and the presence of al-Maliki’s Dijla Operations Command.

As the KRG has continued to attract foreign direct investment while strengthening its own security apparatus and deftly annexing disputed territories on the Arab-majority side of the Green Line, the societal fissures within Iraq have only deepened. Recently, Atheel Nujaifi, the governor of Ninawa—home to the turbulent Mosul—announced that his province would be inking its own deals with foreign energy firms despite fierce objections by the Oil Ministry in Baghdad.[42]

The al-Maliki government, while irked by the KRG and now Ninawa’s possible outside oil contract moves, has done little to stop the destruction of northern oil infrastructure key to its own economic survival. Militants can now travel freely from eastern Syria to northern Iraq as the Syrian war grinds on.[43] This will have the likely effect of the KRG hardening its militarized territorial absorption program to securitize Kurdish villages or historic Kurdish areas and stave off jihadist infiltration well beyond the recognized three provinces of the KRG. Despite the ethnic and sectarian prism through which the bloodshed in northern Iraq is viewed, it must be noted that bitter economic competition over oil and gas resources importantly underpins all of the aforementioned conflicts in the locally-held long view.

Derek Henry Flood is an independent analyst working in MENA, Central and South Asia. Mr. Flood has written for Asia Times Online, CNN, Christian Science Monitor and Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst among other publications. Previously, he served as editor of The Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.

[1] Kirkuk Province can alternately be referred to as Tamim Province. See Kenneth Katzman, Iraq: Politics, Elections and Benchmarks (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, 2009), pp. 2, 10.

[2] Liz Sly, “U.S. Policy on Iraq Questioned as Influence Wanes, Maliki Consolidates Power,” Washington Post, April 8, 2012; Yochi Dreazen, “Iraq’s New Strong Man,” Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, October 14, 2011.

[3] ISIL is commonly abbreviated as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham). See Sami Aboudi, “Iraqi al Qaeda Wing Merges with Syrian Counterpart,” Reuters, April 9, 2013.

[4] Michael M. Gunter, Historical Dictionary of the Kurds (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2011), p. 155.

[5] For a sample of the U.S. military’s interpretation of the approximate Green Line from 1991-2003, see the map in “Developments in Iraq,” Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, July 2012, p. 75.

[6] “Draft Constitution Adopted by Iraqi Voters,” Associated Press, October 25, 2005.

[7] Hania Mufti and Peter Bouckaert, “Iraq, Claims in Conflict: Reversing Ethnic Cleansing in Northern Iraq,” Human Rights Watch, 2004, p. 10.

[8]  Michael J. Kelly, Ghosts of Halabja: Saddam Hussein and the Kurdish Genocide (Westport, CT: Praeger Security International, 2008), pp. 23-31.

[9]  The Green Line is the nominal 1991 demarcation line that was between the Kurdish northern provinces of Iraq and the remainder controlled by Saddam Hussein.

[10] Mufti and Bouckaert, pp. 46-47.

[11] “Kirkuk in Limbo as Law Addressing Political Balance is Scrapped,” IRIN, October 14, 2013.

[12] Personal observations, Kirkuk Province, August 2, 2013.

[13] “Iraq and the Kurds: The High-Stakes Hydrocarbons Gambit,” International Crisis Group, April 19, 2012.

[14]  “Oil Flow from Northern Iraq to Turkey Halted,” Hurriyet, August 23, 2013; Kamarran al-Najar, “New Pipeline Bombing Adds to Kirkuk Field Woes,” Iraq Oil Report, September 18, 2013.

[15] Meeyoung Cho and Peg Mackey, “Iraq Signs Deal With BP to Revive Northern Kirkuk Oilfield,” Reuters, September 12, 2013.

[16] Tamsin Carlisle, “Trying to Sell the Advantages of Investing in Kirkuk Oil,” Platts, October 14, 2013.

[17] Liam Anderson and Gareth Stansfield, Crisis in Kirkuk: The Ethnopolitics of Conflict and Compromise (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), p. 54.

[18] Personal interviews, Kirkuk Province, August 2, 2013.

[19] Karim Abed Zayer, “Maliki Deploys ‘Tigris Force’ to Kirkuk,” Azzaman, November 13, 2012.

[20] “Iraqi Forces Clash with Kurdish Troops, One Dead,” Reuters, November 16, 2012.

[21] Amberin Zaman, “Syrian Kurdish Leader Urges Turkey To End Support for Salafists,” al-Monitor, October 9, 2013.

[22]  “Hundreds of Iraqis Protest Against Lawmaker Privileges,” Reuters, August 31, 2013.

[23] “IMF Says Iraq has Made Good Progress with its Economy,” BBC, October 1, 2010.

[24] “Path Cleared for Maliki’s Third Term as PM,” Agence France-Presse, August 26, 2013.

[25] “Make or Break: Iraq’s Sunnis and the State,” International Crisis Group, August 14, 2013.

[26] “Sunni Grievances Drive Spike in Iraq Unrest,” Agence France-Presse, May 26, 2013.

[27] “Sons of Iraq Graduate Iraqi Police Training in Hawija,” U.S. Central Command, May 16, 2008.

[28] Adam Schreck, “Clashes Suggest Sunni Anger Boiling Over in Iraq,” Associated Press, April 24, 2013.

[29] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ali Abel Sadah, “Sunni Tribes in Anbar, Kirkuk Prepare for Battle,” Iraq Pulse, May 3, 2013.

[31]  Adam Schreck, “Group Tied to Old Guard Could Gain in Iraq Unrest,” Associated Press, April 27, 2013.

[32]  For details on the JRTN, see Michael Knights, “The JRTN Movement and Iraq’s Next Insurgency,” CTC Sentinel 4:7 (2011).

[33]  Personal interviews, local security force leaders, Dbis, Kirkuk Province, Iraq, August 2, 2013.

[34] Fayez Sarah, “Iraq and Iran Aligned on Syria,” as-Safir, November 9, 2012; Adam Schreck and Qassim Abdul-Zahra, “Iraq PM Maliki Warns Syria War Could Spread if Opposition Wins,” Associated Press, February 27, 2013.

[35] “Iraqi Special Force Kills Prince of al-Qaeda in Hawija,” Shafaq News, October 19, 2013; “Key Qaeda Leader Killed in Hawijah,” All Iraq News, October 19, 2013.

[36] “Six Thousand Sunni Arabs Join Security Pact to Help U.S. Forces Block Terrorist Escape Routes,” Associated Press, November 28, 2007.

[37]  “Iraq’s May Death of Over 1,000 is Worst Since 2008, UN Says,” Associated Press, June 1, 2013.

[38]  “Iraq Oil Exports to Turkey Halted by Pipeline Attack,” Agence France-Presse, August 21, 2013.

[40] “Turkey-KRG Pipeline ‘Close to Completion,’” Reuters, August 22, 2013; Ben van Heuvelen, “New Gas Pipeline Reinforces Turkey-KRG Ties,” Iraq Oil Report, October 6, 2013.

[41] Jim Muir, “Iraq: Prospects of Partition as Violence Takes its Toll,” BBC, May 2, 2013.

[42]  Ziad al-Sanjary, “Iraq Province Empowers Governor to Sign Oil Deals Without Baghdad,” Reuters, September 19, 2013.

[43] Personal interviews, Iraqi police and military, Dibis district, Kirkuk Province, Iraq, August 2, 2013.

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