The provincial capital is home to Arab, Turkmen and Kurdish communities and is also divided into sectarian groups (Shia and Sunni). Historical griefs following efforts by political actors to modify the demographics of the city have never healed and get regularly revived due to the instrumentalization of those divisions by political actors.
Underlying tensions in Kirkuk came to a head on September 2 when four Kurds were killed in violent clashes. The deaths may foretell a difficult autumn in the multi-ethnic governorate, which is claimed by both Baghdad and Erbil and is home to Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen. The provincial elections scheduled for December 18 — the first time these polls will be held since 2005 — will be a key test of the relative balance of power in the governorate. While a great deal is at stake locally, political developments in Kirkuk will also have a significant impact on Baghdad-Erbil relations.
In August, the Iraqi government announced it would return the former headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in the city. The party had vacated the complex on October 16, 2017, when the Iraqi Security Forces and the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) took Kirkuk in the aftermath of the 2017 Kurdistan Region independence referendum. Since then, it has been used by Iraq’s Joint Operations Command (JOC).
Over the past six years, the KDP has always said that it intends to return to the city, but plans were not implemented. The party hopes to improve on a strong showing in the 2021 federal parliamentary elections when it won two seats and an active presence in Kirkuk provides key symbolism for its campaign. The headquarters handover was reportedly part of the government formation deal that brought Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani to power, in part with the support of the KDP. As such, it was a key test of Iraqi Prime minister Mohammed Shiaa al-Sudani’s good faith and whether he could implement the deal.
Groups opposed to the handover, including Iran-backed Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), a Sunni-based group called the Arab Coalition in Kirkuk, and part of the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF), launched a protest on August 28 near the headquarters and blocked the Erbil-Kirkuk highway. Kurdish counter-protesters organized their own demonstration on September 2 and marched towards the headquarters. PMF militia members fired at the crowd and killed one person outright and three others would later die of injuries sustained during the clashes. All were Kurds. The Iraqi government imposed an overnight curfew and maintained a visible military presence on the streets to prevent further violence.
The next day, the Iraqi Federal Supreme Court suspended implementation of handover of the headquarters to the KDP. The court has become known for issuing ruling that are adverse to the interests of the Kurdish ruling parties, including that the Kurdistan Region’s oil and gas law and the extension of the Kurdistan Parliament’s term were unconstitutional. Therefore, the status quo ante regarding the KDP headquarters will prevail in the near-term.
Where the parties stand
Kurdish leaders reacted furiously to the deaths, demanding that the perpetrators be brought to justice. The KDP in particular issued a strong message. KDP leader Masoud Barzani saying that those shedding Kurdish blood “will have very bad consequences” and those responsible will “pay a heavy price.” Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, who is a senior KDP leader, called the supreme court ruling a “farce.” The party organized a nationalist rally in Duhok on September 5 to signal that it would adopt a hard line of the issue.
Leaders of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which has traditionally been the most powerful Kurdish party in Kirkuk, also condemned the deaths and called for an investigation. However, they also blamed the KDP for precipitating the situation. PUK leader Bafel Talabani said in a statement that “shedding the blood of our youths is unacceptable and their lives and fates should not be played under the name of the sense of nationalism,” apparently a reference to the KDP. The PUK did poorly in the 2021 parliamentary election and lost two of its seats. A better performance in December is critical for the party’s overall fortunes. Beating the KDP and maintaining its status as the largest Kurdish party is a key priority. The governorship may also be at stake.
The deadly role played by the PMF in the violence should not be overlooked, but its political role is also important. AAH leader Qais al-Khazali is a powerful presence within the Shia Coordination Framework (SCF) that forms the core of Sudani’s government, but has an independent streak that he sometimes uses to play spoiler. Upending the prime minister’s plans and thwarting the KDP shows the flex that the PMF and Iran-backed groups can wield.
There are also divisions in how the Sunni parties are approaching the potential return of the KDP to Kirkuk. Arab Coalition in Kirkuk is affiliated with the acting governor of the province, Rakan al-Jabouri, who was appointed in 2017. He could retain this position following the provincial election, but faces an uphill battle in the face of Kurdish opposition and ambition. Much depends on the outcome of the post-election composition of the provincial council.
Other Sunni parties are more amenable to the KDP’s return to Kirkuk. In the aftermath of the violence, Khamis al-Khanjar, the leader of Siyada Alliance, met with Masoud Barzani in Erbil. Khanjar is running on a shared list with Council of Representatives Speaker Mohammed al-Halbusi in the upcoming provincial elections in Kirkuk.
Finally, the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF) also plays a notable role. Kirkuk is central to Turkmen claims for a devolved territory of their own in Iraq, like the Kurdistan Region, but the community is politically fractured. The ITF has been going through a leadership struggle that has blunted its power, while the broader Turkmen community has divisions between Shia and Sunni groups and those who are closely linked with the KRG and the KDP. In some ways, the ITF could play kingmaker in any post-election scenario. The Turkish government has warned that it is watching the situation and will back the Turkmen to prevent demographic changes.
While the violence was limited to September 2, the episode will certainly not be forgotten. Kirkuk is a “third rail” of Iraqi politics. In trying to implement the government formation deal and meet its obligations to the KDP, Sudani’s government has received a nasty shock that will reverberate through the autumn.
The most significant consequence will be a further deterioration in the already rocky relationship between Baghdad and Erbil. While Sudani appears to have acted in good faith by trying to transfer back control of the headquarters to the KDP, he was unable to implement his decision, thwarted both by local actors and members of his own coalition. The KDP feels that it already has reason to doubt Sudani’s ability to deliver on promises and this will only reinforce that perception. Indeed, in the days after September 2, the KDP-led KRG has attacked the federal government for not sending the Kurdistan Region’s budget share and dramatically proclaimed that Baghdad-Erbil talks have “failed.” This reduces the prospect that progress will be made on other issues like a national hydrocarbons law.
It is unclear whether violence will reoccur in Kirkuk, but several highly charged events will take place this autumn that could exacerbate tensions. The sixth anniversary of the Kurdistan Region’s independence referendum is right around the corner on September 25. The KDP is likely to make more of the occasion than last year, when no significant events were held, as indicated by the September 5 rally in Duhok. Whether they attempt to hold a commemoration in Kirkuk is not yet clear. This is closely followed by the anniversary of October 16, which will also be emotionally charged. Shortly thereafter, campaigning for the provincial elections begins in earnest.