I traveled to Kirkuk once in 2006. Long-time readers may remember my tale from that trip and, most certainly, this picture which caused such a stir at home.
When the A-Team (see above) decided to visit the American family in Kirkuk, we we picked up by the family's drivers, taken to a point just outside of Kirkuk, transferred to two bullet-proof vehicles and taken into the city.
I was in a separate car from the ladies. They were given bullet-proof vests, but I wasn't. I was advised not to get too close to the window and not to draw attention to myself.
I don't know anything about the layout of Kirkuk. I don't know what neighborhood the family lived in and I don't know what roads we took once we were inside Kirkuk. I peeked out the window from the safety of my seat rather than pressing my face up against the glass as I would have prefered.
The city looked just like the other cities I'd been to in Kurdistan, but it seemed sadder and poorer. I remember dirty banners hung across the road which reminded me of some long abandoned party.
At one point, our host pointed out his window, "That's where they say the prophet Daniel is buried."
I couldn't see much from my side of the car, but I wondered how dangerous it would actually be to stop and see it. I mean, it's Daniel of lion den fame. If he could make it out of the lion's den safely, why couldn't I make it out of Kirkuk safely?
We spent our weekend inside the family's home and we left the same way we came. Except, on the way out, I wore a bullet-proof vest, too.
Kirkuk is important today, not as the burial place of Daniel, but as the newest stumbling block for the Iraqi constitution.
The historically Kurdish city was not included in the no-fly zone following the first Gulf War. In fact, the Iraqi government removed their recognition of both Kirkuk and it's oil fields as part of the Kurdish region in 1974. This came following promises in 1970 to honor historical precedent.
Throughout the 1980s the Ba'ath regime of Saddam Hussein pursued a policy of arabization in much of Kurdistan, but certainly in Kirkuk. The government moved Arabs in and forced Kurds out. The city and surrounding province remained predominantly Kurdish, nonetheless.
Following the US invasion and the fall of the Ba'ath regime, Kurds who had been resettled began to return to Kirkuk. Since that time, Kirkuk has been a hotbed of in-fighting and insurgency.
The fighting is between three main Iraqi parties; Sunni, Shia and Kurd, plus a relatively small population of Turkmen. Each side wants control of the city and its vast oil reserves. At the very least, no one wants one of the other groups to gain control.
In the Kurds favor is Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution. It allows for a referendum on the status of Kirkuk. The article allows for the iof Kirkuk to decide their own future; to become part of the Kurdish region or not. There is little doubt that the majority Kurdish population will choose inclusion with the rest of the Kurdish region.
This vote was to take place in November 2007. As of August 2008, that has yet to happen.
The problem is that each ethnic group, with the exception of the Kurds, has strong regional backing. The Shia have the support of Iran, The Sunni of Saudi Arabia and the Turkomen of Turky. Each nation has pressed the Iraqi government to postpone the vote in the hopes of weakening the Kurdish region.
Although, in the case of Saudi Arabia it may have much more to do with keeping it for the Sunnis rather than weakening the Kurds. The Saudis would much prefer a strong Sunni Iraq to a strong Shia state in its place.
Up to this point, the Kurdish government has supported the Iraqi constitution. In the past month, the Kurdish bloc has walked out of parliament sessions over election laws related to the Kirkuk question. The Kurdish region is beyond a doubt the strongest and most stable region of Iraq. If the Iraqi government loses the support of the Kurds, the government collapses.
The question becomes, how long will the Kurds wait on Kirkuk? The peshmerga could take control of the city and region and hold it . This is one of the reasons that both Turkey and Iran continue to shell Northern Iraq. Claims of PKK or PJAK support is a pretext to keep armed forces on the border and, should the Kurds claim what it rightfully theirs, one can be sure that Turkey and Iran will use the same pretext to attack.
Like Halabja, there is much more to this story than I can provide. Below are some good websites to check out if you want to know more.
Kirkuk on Wikipedia
Kirkuk on GlobalSecurity
Council on Foreign Relations