Kirkuk is the most ethnically diverse city in Iraq. The region around the city accounts for as much as 40% of Iraq’s oil production and 70% of its natural gas production, which makes the question of ‘ownership’ of Kirkuk both strategically very important and highly contentious. Between 1979 and 2003, Saddam Hussein pursued a policy of ‘Arabization’ in the city, which led to the uprooting of more than 100,000 Kurds (some estimates say 200,000). The city also is claimed by Turkmen, who according to a 1957 census once held the majority. Since the toppling of the Saddam regime in 2003, hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Kurds and Turkmen returned to Kirkuk to reclaim their lost properties or reside in camps on the eastern fringe of the city. Most experts say that Kurds now make up a clear majority and retain control over most of the city’s important political posts. However the Turkmen, once the foundation of the city’s urban elite, have been most affected as a result of continuous security and political problems. They are opposed to Kirkuk being ruled by Kurds and claim discrimination and scapegoating. Iraq’s Sunni and Shia nationalists, moreover, fear that Kurdish autonomy will lead to the eventual split-up of Iraq, and they argue that Kirkuk should not be incorporated into the autonomous region of Kurdistan. They also claim that Kurds are abusing their power and even of ‘reverse ethnic cleansing.’ Disputes are growing between Kurdistan and Baghdad. Adding yet another layer of complexity and urgency, Kirkuk has become a focal point in the battle against Islamic State, as Islamist fighters advance on the region with the aim of capturing its oil fields. [Source: ]


The population of Iraq is estimated at 30 million, although 2.5 million have fled the country to escape sectarian violence, which is one of the largest sources of refugees since 2005, and another 2 million have been displaced internally since the US-led invasion that began in 2003-2011. Best estimates for ethnic groups are that 75% to 80% are Arab and 15% to 20% are Kurds. Significant minority ethnic groups together constitute about 5% of the population. These include Turkmen, Assyrians, and Chaldeans. Best estimates of religious affiliation show that 97% of the population is Muslim, 55% to 60 % are Shiites, 37% to 42% are Sunnis, Christians and non-Muslims make up 3 percent.

Kurdistan has been an autonomous region of Iraq since 1991, when the international community applied a no-fly zone after the First Gulf War.

Kirkuk is located in Northern Iraq, 165m 265km northwest of Baghdad. The origin of the name Kirkuk is Assyrian. Kirkuk is derivative of the Assyrian name (Karkha D-Bet Slokh), which means the city besieged by a wall. The present city of Kirkuk stands on the site of the ancient Assyrian city called Arabkha, which existed in the 5th Millennium BC. The city reached great prominence in the 11th and 10th centuries BC under the Assyrians’ rule. The oldest part of the city is clustered around a citadel built on an ancient mount. Kirkuk contains oilfields accounting for 13% of Iraq’s proven reserves. The region around Kirkuk accounts for as much as 40% of Iraq’s oil production and 70% of its natural-gas production; factors that contribute to making “ownership” of Kirkuk a matter of contention.

Kirkuk is the most ethnically diverse city in Iraq. Between 1979 and 2003, the regime of Saddam Hussein uprooted more than 100,000 Kurds (some estimates say 200,000) in his efforts to “Arabize” the city. Kurds stake a historical claim dating back to the late 19th century when, they assert, Kurds made up three-quarters of the population of Kirkuk province. A 1957 census showed, however, that Turkmen predominated inside the city of Kirkuk, making up 37% of the population, while Kurds made up 33%, Arabs 22%, and Christians 1 percent. That census revealed that in the Kirkuk province, the population proportions were as follows: Kurds at 48%; Turkmen at 21%; Arabs at 28% and Christians at less than 1 percent. It should be noted that some sources suggest that the 1957 census showed that Kurds were the majority.

Since the toppling of the Saddam regime in 2003, hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Kurds and Turkmen returned to Kirkuk to reclaim their lost properties or reside in camps on the eastern fringe of the city. Some experts say their motivation was to rebalance the city’s population in preparation for the December 2007 referendum. Most experts say Kurds now makeup a clear majority and retain control over most of the city’s important political posts, because of a ruling that allowed around 70,000 displaced Kurds to vote. The Turkmen, once the foundation of the city’s urban elite, have been most affected as a result of continuous security and political problems. Perhaps up to 350,000 Kurds have returned to Kirkuk. Although there are no definitive figures available, it is generally accepted that Kurds are now in the majority.

Article 140 of the Iraq Constitution stipulated that a province‐wide referendum to determine the status of Kirkuk would take place before 31 December 2007. However, citing security concerns, the government failed to conduct the referendum. Turkmen in particular are opposed to a Kirkuk ruled by Kurds, because they see it as the first step to incorporate Kirkuk into Kurdistan. Turkmen complain of being scapegoated by Kurds, subject to attack and discrimination. Other ethnic groups harbour similar complaints in the face of aggressive moves on the part of the Kurds who have taken majority control of Kirkuk province, allowing them to place Kurdish loyalists in key positions in the civil service, take control of Kirkuk’s intelligence services and policemen, while Kurdish Peshmerga (the army of Kurdistan) remain based outside the city.

Turkey fears that a Kurdistan with Kirkuk as its capital and sitting atop such oil abundance would constitute a move by Kurdistan toward creating an independent Kurdish state. Ankara’s primary concern is that such a move by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) to seek greater autonomy could spill over into its own borders and spark unrest among Turkey’s own 12 million Kurds. Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite nationalists, fearing an eventual split-up of Iraq, say Kirkuk is home to Arabs as well as Kurds and thus should not be incorporated into Iraq’s autonomous region of Kurdistan. They accuse Kurds of forcibly driving Sunni and Shiite Arabs out of their homes, of overstating their claim to Kirkuk, as well as “reverse ethnic cleansing” by displacing some of the city’s Arab residents.

Statistics in Iraq and the usages to which they are put are highly controversial. Different censuses have generated different results and have been highly politicized. Sunni Arabs, meanwhile, cite a 1997 census that showed Arabs—both Shiite and Sunni—made up 58% of the city’s population. Some experts say the data is faulty because under the “Ethnic Correction Policy,” many Kurds and Turkmen unwillingly changed their Iraqi National Identification Card, i.e., to be regarded as Arabs, so they would not risk being expelled from their houses to other provinces.

The status of Kirkuk remains unsettled amid growing disputes between Kurdistan and Baghdad. Further exacerbating tensions between the two is the arrest and sentencing of former Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi. When an arrest warrant was issued in December 2011, Hashimi retreated to Kurdistan and then Turkey. His trial continued despite his absence in Baghdad and on 9 September 2012 several acts of violence erupted throughout the country in opposition to the death sentence awarded him. In addition, many oil contracts where the KRG has signed agreements without central government’s approval has exacerbated tensions.

Although provincial elections were held throughout Iraq on 31 January 2009, no elections were held in Kirkuk because of disagreement regarding the size of the city’s population. A UN draft proposal (as part of the Provincial Election Law a special article related to Kirkuk was issued: Article 23) stipulates a temporary power-sharing agreement or joint administration on an equally proportionate basis: 32% representation each for Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen and 4% for minorities. This proposal has been adopted by the Kirkuk Provincial Council (KPC).

American troops withdrew from Iraq in December 2011, marking the official end to the occupation of the country. Yet, Kirkuk is Iraq’s tinderbox of conflict, with the potential of all-out war between the Peshmerga and Iraqi security forces as well as internecine ethno/sectarian violence among Turkmen, Kurds, and Arabs.

Iraqi national elections held in March 2010 had a 55% turnout, but it remains to be seen if a transition in power occurs in the various provinces and disputed regions including Kirkuk, whether violence and ethnic tensions will follow. The election results clearly reflected the ethnic situation on the ground in Kirkuk. Since Arab and Turkmen joined the Al-Iraqia list led by Ayad Allawi (representing the major Arab Sunni political block), they gained six seats in the Province of Kirkuk (including two for the Turkmen) while the only Kurdish list that succeeded in getting six seats was the Kurdistani Alliance, led by the two major parties, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The Christians assured their only seat in Kirkuk through the privilege of the Election Law quota system for minorities in the country.

Intercommunal tension, unresolved legal-political status, and a divided security situation left Kirkuk vulnerable. In early June 2014, ISIL began its assault on Kirkuk. Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) who had been in the city maintaining a presence along with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) retreated, allowing ISIL to capture the Arab majority areas of Kirkuk. Kurdish Security Forces took over exclusive control of the city, including the Kirkuk oil fields. With the help of the US-led Coalition and an influx of volunteers ISIL’s advancement was halted. In early 2015, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) joined the Kurdish forces in their security operations. However, ISIL attacks managed to persist, the most notable in October 2016. As Coalition forces were aiding in the retake of Mosul, sleeper cells in Kirkuk attacked multiple government buildings and police stations forcing heavy causalities and control to only be re-established after 48 hours. By the end of 2017 the Iraqi government publicly claimed victory over ISIS and the US military issued a report stating that ISIS had lost close to 98% of its territory. 

Another battle reignited in Autumn of 2017 as Baghdad imposed punitive measures on the Kurdish Regional Government after 90% of Kurds backed an independence referendum pushing regional tensions to the forefront. Iraqi army forces offensively pushed back Kurdish forces, once again taking control of Kirkuk and reasserting federal control as a move aimed to stop an independent Kurdistan. 

The oil rich region of Kirkuk is one of the leading factors for this war within a war. Home to some of the oldest oilfields, the revenue from these fields alone would allow the Kurdish region the financial autonomy that they desire for political independence. In 2014, Baghdad filed an arbitration at the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Court of Arbitration (ICA) in Paris after the Kurdish Regional Government began to sell oil in Kirkuk to a Turkish state oil firm. The case now in its fifth year will determine the reach of Baghdad’s power over oil and gas on Kurdish land, and if the Kurdish region can continue to sell the oil independently of Baghdad. The implications of this decision are far-reaching, as they would affect current and future pipelines in the area as well as influencing other countries energy production in the area, such as Russia and China. 

ISIL remains a serious security threat for Kirkuk. According to a report by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, ISIL attacks in Kirkuk province more than doubled from 2017 to 2018. The lack of an official military presence in these disputed areas have allowed ISIL to regroup into smaller cell structures and operate freely causing continued instability. Further issues of a growing youth population, high unemployment rates, large populations of displaced persons and a slow speed of reconstruction in Kirkuk are other factors that could lead to the re-growth of ISIL and further sectarian violence if there is failure to address them going forward.