Brigadier General Sarhad Qader, the police chief of the troubled Iraqi city of Kirkuk, sighed as he flipped through the photos of the officers killed in bombings earlier in January. There was an older man with a dignified, thick moustache, a pale woman with bright pink lipstick and others, all wearing light blue uniforms against empty backdrops. Kirkuk’s police are being hunted, he said.
72 hours after our meeting, the fortified police headquarters complex was hit by a devastating attack. A powerful suicide car bomb detonated, breaching the perimeter. Gunmen rushed in. Dozens were killed and Qader was sent to the hospital. As usual, there was no outright claim of responsibility, but like similar attacks, it has the hallmarks of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Ten years after the American invasion of Iraq and just a year since US troops finally left, Kirkuk finds itself at the frontline of a blooming conflict between the Iraqi central government in Baghdad and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Both sides claim the resource-rich city as their own and as tensions rise, extremist groups have taken advantage of the relative security vacuum resulting from the withdrawal of US troops, stepping up attacks and reintroducing suicide bombings in an attempt to further wedge the divide.
Kirkuk’s oil fields are currently pumping out around a quarter of a million barrels per day, but are capable of producing hundreds of thousands more. But the redevelopment of the fields has been stalled by ongoing spats between the Iraqi government and the KRG.
These disputes over land, oil and the level of Kurdish autonomy in Iraq’s precarious federalist state are longstanding. But recently the Kurds have been more aggressive in their assertions of autonomy and their defiance of the central government.
To Baghdad’s ire, the KRG has arranged its own oil contracts with international companies and begun exporting oil overland through Turkey — moves the central government describes as illegal. No progress has been made on the issue of disputed territories and a referendum to decide the issue has been delayed for nearly six years now. “Not resolving these issues could lead to a larger conflict, perhaps a military showdown between both sides,” said Najmaldin Karim, the governor of Kirkuk.
In the past year there have been a number of tense standoffs between the Peshmerga, the KRG’s military force, and the Iraqi Army. In Novermber Peshmerga and central government forces clashed in Tuz Khurmutu, just south of Kirkuk, leaving one dead.
The creation last autumn of a new Iraqi military command headquarters, the Tigris Operations Command – which is tasked with watching over the security of disputed Kirkuk, Salaheddine and Diyala – also fueled Kurdish anger. Many Kurds view the command as unconstitutional and provocative, particularly given that the man tipped to lead the forces, Abdul Amir al-Zaidi, is accused of taking part in Saddam Hussein’s bloody al-Anfal campaign in which at least 50,000 Kurds were killed.
So far the sides have eventually stepped down from standoffs, but the central grievances have not been addressed and both have asserted that they are ready for a fight if it comes to it.
There are great gains and rewards to be had. An hour away from Kirkuk’s edgy streets, the KRG’s capital Erbil reflects the prosperity that Kurds have been able to harness. Hotels are popping up, the airport is modern and wide highways ring the city.
The use of petrodollars has allowed the rapid development of the Kurdistan region since 2003, laying the foundations for a state with the potential to survive independently of the central government.
Next door in Syria, Kurdish groups have carved out a region of their own in the country’s oil-rich northeast amid the chaos of the civil war. As such, the KRG could broaden its regional influence as de facto Kurdish rule emerges outside of Iraq.
To the south, Baghdad is bogged down facing a Sunni-led protest against the Shia-led government of Nouri al-Maliki, as sectarianism boils again and violence continues. Representative of the broader conflicts that the Kurds are trying to separate themselves from, the latest crisis is perhaps an opportunity to further challenge Baghdad with fewer consequences as the central government is focused on more immediate matters.
A loosening of Baghdad’s tethers could help the Kurds finally spread their influence. But with such heated disputes over oil, land, money, power and identity stitched into Kurdish-Arab fault line in northern Iraq, the route forward is unpredictable and potentially explosive.
Josh Wood is a regular contributor to The International Herald Tribune and Esquire Middle East