Preparations for the attack on Mosul, which were widely covered by international media, ignored one of the most pressing problems in today’s Iraq – the question of Kirkuk. For the future of Iraq, this issue is perhaps no less important than the timeframe and methods of liberating Mosul from ISIS militants.

Kirkuk and the surrounding area are multi-ethnic, with the largest ethnic groups being Kurds and Arabs; Turkmens also constitute a significant minority. A large portion of the Arab population settled here relatively recently, as part of Saddam Hussein’s campaign of “Arabization” in Kirkuk; hence, Kurds perceive them as aliens. Some of the Kurdish families evicted by Hussein returned home after 2003.

It is generally accepted that Kurds constitute the majority in Kirkuk, but without an official census it is not possible to determine the exact ratio of ethnic groups living there. This uncertainty has led to discussions on a referendum to determine if Kirkuk should belong to the government in Baghdad, or Iraqi Kurdistan. This issue has been discussed for roughly ten years with no resolution.

Peshmerga units have been in control of Kirkuk since the middle of 2014, when Iraqi armed forces left the city ahead of the advancing ISIS forces. This gave the Kurds reason to claim that it was they who defended the region from Islamists.

An autonomous future for Kirkuk?

The area’s multi-ethnicity has led to initiatives to make the Kirkuk region autonomous like Iraqi Kurdistan. If this happens, power will have to be divided between the Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmens. However, for the Kurds, the main goal is to include the district in Iraqi Kurdistan. The problem is that, except for the Kurds, no one – neither in Iraq nor abroad – is interested in this, which makes achieving the goal quite problematic.

If a referendum is conducted, Baghdad risks more than just losing control over the region: such a scenario would create a dangerous precedent for other parts of the country. Iraqi Kurdistan itself has aspirations spreading beyond only Kirkuk (they cover, for example, significant areas in the Mosul region). For most external actors, the prospect of strengthening the Kurds at the expense of the central Iraqi government is also unattractive.

Turkey could potentially agree to this option if the region were dominated not by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), but by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), with which Turkey has traditionally managed to achieve mutual understanding. However, the PUK possesses greater influence in Kirkuk. In addition, Ankara is sensitive to the situation of Turkmens living there. Iran, which is interested in strengthening a Baghdad government dominated by Shias, would obviously oppose such an expansion of Iraqi Kurdistan’s territory.

Kurds consider Kirkuk to be an integral part of their homeland, and often call it “Kurdish Jerusalem.” Some even see the city as the future capital of the Iraqi Kurds.

In early March 2017, the Kurds unequivocally demonstrated who the real master of the city was by blocking the transit of oil in protest at Baghdad’s energy policies. This was not the first time this had happened – in 2016, the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline was blocked by the Kurds for several months.

According to the existing agreement between Baghdad and Erbil, concluded between Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Prime Minister of Iraqi Kurdistan Nechervan Barzani from the KDP, Kirkuk oil revenues are shared equally. However, the PUK, which is a partner/competitor of the KDP, disagrees with the existing state of affairs. Indeed, it was PUK representatives who initiated the blockage in early March.

On  20 March, as a part of the Nowruz celebration, the Kurdish flag was raised in Kirkuk along with the Iraqi one. The governor of Kirkuk, Najmaldin Karim, also declared that the Kurdish language would now be used along with Arabic in official governorate communications. The raising of the flag caused a strong reaction both in Iraq and abroad. The UN Office in Iraq spoke out against the move, while a protest campaign was organised by the Kirkuk Turkmens. Ankara’s reaction has been predictably negative too.

Kirkuk’s uncertain future

A recent study reasonably pointed out that local grassroots actors are the ones that should decide on the status of the region. However, it is unclear how one could do it in the existing situation, under the current constellation of forces. Thus, the future of Kirkuk remains uncertain. In the meantime, regardless of when the referendum on Kirkuk’s destiny takes place and what the results turn out to be, communities living there will need to engage in dialogue and elaborate some modes of co-existence.

For the time being, Peshmerga units are in de facto control of Kirkuk territory, and it is hard to imagine that they would leave it of their own free will. Among other things, Kirkuk’s oil reserves significantly increase the chances of Iraqi Kurdistan achieving sustainable independence.

In this regard, it should be noted that despite the recent statements of the Iraqi Kurdistan leaders about their plans to hold a referendum on independence in 2017, it is unlikely that they would take such a step before they attempt to firmly secure a number of disputed territories, Kirkuk being the most prominent among them. However, it is quite possible that before long we will witness exactly such attempts.