Kirkuk: One man’s story of a lost city

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Wed, 25 Oct 2017 - 01:05 GMT

Kurdish and Iraqi flags sway in the wind as a bonfire burns during the Nowruz spring festival celebrations in Kirkuk, north of Baghdad. AFP/Marwan Ibrahim

Kurdish and Iraqi flags sway in the wind as a bonfire burns during the Nowruz spring festival celebrations in Kirkuk, north of Baghdad. AFP/Marwan Ibrahim

I was born in Kirkuk; I’ve lived here all my life. Now I am a stranger, in a strange city.

It is their fault. The KDP and PUK both. They destroyed everything. Kirkuk was going to be invaded anyway, aside from the referendum, but they made so many mistakes.

They are responsible for being irresponsible.

CAIRO - 25 October 2017: As a young Kurdish man living in Kirkuk, Herdi has endured a lot. Kirkuk sits on the border of Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, and has been the source of conflict for decades as actors fight for control of what lies beneath the sand.

Kirkuk has been the focus of some of the most intense rivalries in Iraq’s modern history and is the most desired of the disputed territories on the ever-shifting border. With an estimated nine billion barrels of oil under the sand, the territory also hosts a wealth of strategic facilities, such as Kirkuk airport and the K1 military base.

With thousands of troops and militia stationed on either side of the border by October 16, observers anticipated the renewed conflict for the disputed territories and the resources they command to be fierce. However, with little fighting, the allied Iraqi and Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi forces overcame the Peshmerga and now fly the Iraqi flag across the oil-rich territory.

A flourishing multicultural city, Kurds, Arabs, Assyrian and Turkmen live among each other in relative harmony. The Shiite Iranian-backed militias brought not only men and weapons to the disputed city; but fear.

People have left Kirkuk in the thousands, hundreds of thousands in fact. There are some neighborhoods where you can’t find a Kurdish person.

The city used to be very crowded, the roads were crowded, the markets were crowded – but not anymore.

Fearing attacks from sectarian militiamen in the city, many people have fled to the cities of Erbil and Sulaymaniyah to seek safety and refuge. Relatives of Peshmerga fighters fear they will never be able to safely return to their homes in Kirkuk.

Herdi speaks of the profound change which has taken place in the once lively city of Kirkuk in the past week.

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Iraqi security forces man a checkpoint in the northern city of Kirkuk. AFP/Marwan Ibrahim


Some of the markets are still open, but they must close before eight. People are scared. In some neighborhoods stores were stolen from. The authorities call them ‘unknown gunmen’ but they are not. They are Shi’a militias. We know that. Nobody can steal from a store in the city without anybody watching them. The police and security forces know who is committing these acts inside the city.

The multicultural demographic in Kirkuk is being abused by the Iraqi army and sectarian militias. The selective violence and persecution of the Kurdish population is reminiscent of Saddam Hussein’s “Arabization,” which aimed to rid disputed territories of their Kurdish support base.

They [Iraqi and Hashd al-Shaabi forces] are all Shi'a, they have the same thinking and the same ideas and I don’t think they treat us any differently.

They don’t have a problem with Turkmen, Shi'a or Sunni; they are moving freely. Even some Shi'a Kurds have no problems.

Aside from using violence as a mode of repression, the Iraqi and Hashd al-Shaabi forces are progressively enforcing sectarian policies in order to overcome the morale of the Kurdish people.

They are publishing photos of people who voted in the referendum, giving them to security forces and Hashd al-Shaabi to tell them that we’re traitors and that we should be punished.

On October 16, Hashd al-Shaabi leaders Amiri and Muhandis watched over the removal of Kurdish identifiers as the Iraqi flag set sail over the city. Iraqi and sectarian Shiite banners are now widespread while the Kurdish flag is nowhere to be seen. Pictures of Khamenei sit in government buildings and are adorned to U.S.-made humvees.

Baghdad’s foremost concern with the Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum was that it violated the Iraqi constitution which stipulated that the Iraqi territory is not to be partitioned.

With Hashd al-Shaabi’s control in Kirkuk, further violations of the Iraqi constitution are being observed.

They will not allow anymore Kurdish schools in Kirkuk, although they follow the curriculum from Baghdad. They must teach in Arabic from now on.

The threat of violence underpins the demands for Arabization made by the Hashd al-Shaabi militiamen, and the absence of the media allow the Iraqi and Hashd al-Shaabi forces to act under their own discretion with no notable oversight.

In the city there is no media, they can do whatever they want – especially Rudaw and K24, which have been totally banned. Only Baghdad’s media is present in Kirkuk.

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Shiite Popular Mobilization Units celebrate on the outskirts of Kirkuk, Iraq, Oct. 17, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani


I don’t feel safe when I go out. You are afraid of being abused and humiliated in front of people.

The success of the Iraqi and Hashd al-Shaabi forces in the disputed territories was unexpectedly overwhelming. With little to no resistance until now, vast swathes of territory were taken by the relatively new composition of forces. The significance of Iranian support is a prevalent thought in Kirkuk.

Without Iran they could never have beat the Kurdish fighters. Without Iran’s support they couldn’t take any territory in Kurdistan.

The arrival of Iranian-backed militias has opened Kirkuk up as a battle group for influence between the competing actors in Iraqi politics. Muqtada al-Sadr’s infamous militia – Saraya al-Salam – has made its arrival known in the city. Taking over a previously held KDP building, Sadr’s forces have arrived under the premise of support for the Kurds in a political maneuver to establish a support base in the north.

But they are all the same,” Herdi says. “If they were alone in Kirkuk they would do the same as Hashd al-Shaabi, but they want to show that they are good to the Kurds. The important thing for us is that they may protect the Kurds.

The reality is that Iraq, and Kirkuk in particular, has been forsaken by the United States. Thousands, if not millions of lives lost and billions of dollars later; what is there to show?

We are all appreciative of what the U.S. has done in the past; meanwhile they are destroying everything they have built.

Until now, everyone considered America an ally of the Kurds. If they allow Iranian forces and Iraqi forces to continue, there will no longer been any American allies Iraq.

The U.S. finished Iran’s job by removing Saddam, but the silence from Washington is interpreted by many as an invitation for Iran to entrench its sphere of influence in the Middle East. As the U.S. under Trump becomes increasingly protectionist, the U.S. is leaving a vacuum for aspiring and calculated states to fill.

America is losing its allies in the Middle East. Iran is the major power in the Middle East and America is just watching. If the U.S. abandons us we must do what we can to our benefit, and support Iran. We have to accept the reality.

It is truly harsh to allow Iran to control the entire Middle East, but we cannot continue to lose our dignity. We are losing our territories one by one. What else can we do?

Although the independence referendum was opposed by most major world powers – notably including Israel – Barzani’s boldness and courage led people to believe he had unofficial international support for the vote.

We believed he [Barzani] has some support from Europe or the U.S. which is why he acted with such power and strength. It turns out it was only his decision and he had no guarantees at all, from anyone.

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Iraqi Kurds fly Kurdish flags during an event to urge people to vote in the upcoming independence referendum in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on 15 September 2017. AFP/Safin Hamed

Barzani? He did nothing. He failed to build a good defensive Peshmerga. They were just stealing people’s money and running their own oil fields.

Herdi is highly critical of the political atmosphere in Kirkuk currently. No one escapes his displeasure. The actions of the Peshmerga, preceding and following the military action from the south, demands an overhaul of Iraqi Kurdistan’s political hierarchy and system of government.

The PUK betrayed the Kurdish people in Kirkuk, while the KDP betrayed us in other areas.

We all know the attack was coming, so why did they encourage people to fight in Kirkuk when they simply retreated at the last minute? That’s the question. They could’ve just been honest. Instead they panicked all these people, leaving them in terror and agony.

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Masoud Barzani (2 nd L) receives President of the National alliance, a coalition of Shia political group, Ammar Hakim at Zartac Mountain near Nineveh, Iraq October 27, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari

People value honesty over lies.

With this administration, the Kurds are not right to control Kirkuk. Before the referendum we knew that they could not administrate in Kirkuk; they are useless.

We tried to give them a last chance. We thought that they might reconsider their attitude and policy to Kirkuk after the referendum.

However, with the Peshmerga hastily withdrawing from many disputed territories, the opportunity for a fresh start has been lost.

When asked what he hopes are for Kurdistan’s political future, one idea dominated.

They can take a big step – Barzani and the PUK administration – they need to resign; and leave. That’s what I hope for. I wish they would leave Kurdistan.

Herdi and his family represent the people of Kirkuk who have nowhere to go.

Thousands of Kirkuk’s resident fled in their drives to seek refuge with family members in other parts of the region. Yet without family outside of Kirkuk, Herdi is stuck.

With nowhere to go to escape the instability and peril Kirkuk, and with no faith left in the Kurdish political hierarchy, Herdi feels the only option left is to leave the country.

We are planning to sell our house and leave the country; we want to go far from here. We have suffered enough and we can’t take it anymore.

It seems as though, from an Iraqi and Iranian perspective, the campaign has been a resounding success in ridding Kirkuk of Kurds and crushing the Kurdish spirit. Short-term gains often translate into long-term losses; this fight is not over yet.

Herdi has one message for the Kurdish hierarchy:

All I am asking is for you to leave. Resign and just leave.

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Joseph Colonna

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