The view from the roof of Gov. Najmaldin Karim’s office shows this multiethnic city laid out below. He points toward the Sunni suburb of Huwija about 15 miles west, which is controlled by the Islamic State. Two weeks ago, the extremists staged a ferocious assault there that almost broke through Kirkuk’s defense lines.
“ISIS has its eyes on Kirkuk. It is the big prize for them,” says Karim, using the term for the enemy that’s common here. This very morning, a gray day when poor visibility favored the attackers, the Islamic State launched an artillery and mortar strike from a Sunni suburb called Daquq, south of the city. Coalition airstrikes have pounded ISIS targets here twice this week.
Kirkuk province sits uneasily on the fault line with Kurdistan to the east, the Shiite-led Baghdad government to the south and Sunni regions to the west. Karim is a Kurd himself and a member of one of its big political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). But “as governor, I’m governor of everybody,” he insists.
Kirkuk illustrates the dilemmas facing the Kurdish regional government in Irbil, about an hour’s drive north. The Kurds regard it as part of their ancestral homeland, and the Iraqi constitution calls for a referendum in which the city’s Kurdish majority could vote to leave the orbit of Baghdad and become part of Kurdistan.
But can the Kurds swallow Kirkuk without choking on the other groups that live here? Karim reckons that Kurds make up a little more than 50 percent of the Kirkuk population, while Sunnis account for 32 percent to 35 percent and Turkmens have 13 percent to 14 percent. It’s a microcosm of the larger Iraqi ethnic puzzle.
For now, the common enemy of the Islamic State seems to be bringing Iraqis together here. The Kurdish peshmerga rings the city and provides the most important security force. But inside the city, security is managed by a local police force that Karim says is roughly 39 percent Arab, 36 percent Kurd and 26 percent Turkmens. “If they say it’s only the Kurds who are keeping order in the city, that’s not true,” argues Karim.
Karim says he favors a special status for Kirkuk within Kurdistan, like what Quebec has in Canada. But Falah Mustafa Bakir, Kurdistan’s minister for foreign affairs, rejects this formula. “We have waited too long,” he says in an interview in his office in Irbil. “We don’t want to continue with transition and delay.”
Kirkuk is just one of the question marks for a Kurdistan that, in many ways, has been the great Iraqi success story. The region has security, jobs and, most of all, the dynamism of a homogenous population in which nearly everyone shares the same dream of eventual Kurdish independence.
But Kurdistan also has some mundane problems, starting with corruption. The country is run by traditional political parties dominated by the Barzani and Talabani clans, who have historically controlled the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the PUK, respectively. Having the right connections, and greasing them with some cash, has become a way of life here.
It’s “absolutely right” that Kurdistan has been weakened by corruption, concedes Masrour Barzani, the chief of the regional security council who oversees all intelligence activities. “We don’t claim perfection,” agrees Bakir, but he argues that corruption in Kurdistan is far less than the circus of thievery in Baghdad. The ruling KDP government gave a smaller reform party known as “Change” control of the finance ministry and oversight of the peshmerga. But when asked if these reforms have removed payoffs and nepotism, a prominent local businessman just rolls his eyes.
Even the Kurds’ beloved peshmerga had its troubles in the first days of the war against the Islamic State last August. “The pesh had been dormant for a long time,” explains Barzani. Some inexperienced commanders buckled, and grizzled veterans had to be mobilized. Since August, the peshmerga has lost more than 1,000 killed in action, and over 4,500 have been wounded. The Kurds still want their own country someday (leaders talk of a confederation within the next decade), but for now they are still Iraqis.
Kurdistan’s problems are manageable, if leaders take them seriously. The danger is that corruption and political tension could weaken the foundations of the Kurdish region, just as they have the rest of Iraq. For now, the Kurds maintain the strongest platform in the region — and they’ve done the best job in battling the Islamic State extremists. But nothing lasts forever. Kurdistan must solve the problems of success as well as it did those of centuries of isolation and betrayal.