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May 14, 2004 6:38 pm

Kirkuk, and its place in Iraqi History

On my second trip to Baghdad, I made it a point to pass by one of Iraq’s most respected historians, Professor Kamal Mudhhar Ahmad. A Kurd by origin and a leftist by inclination, he was one of the professors that had weathered the storm of Baathist Iraq and emerged with his integrity intact. Now free to write as he pleased, he had just completed a history of Kirkuk, a city grown controversial with the fall of the Hussein regime. I had barely started talking to him about Baghdad University’s travails when he deposited a signed copy in my satchel.

Kirkuk, a city in northern Iraq, is now being claimed by three ethnicities, Arab, Kurd and Turkmen. The Kurds, especially, had signaled that their autonomous zone would be incomplete without total control of the oil-rich city, which some of them even referred to as their “Jerusalem”. Professor Kamal Ahmad’s book, therefore, seemed just the right reference to read to understand the historical ramifications of the Kirkuk question. Meaning to speak to the Arabs in particular with this book, he begins with an unusual dedication, addressing it to “every Arab who refuses to be a tyrant as much as he refuses to become a victim”. Then without further ado, he immediately links Kirkuk to the ancient Medes, the forerunner of the Kurds, who formed an empire in the seventh century BC which lasted until 550 BC. The empire eventually fell to the Persians, after which period the Kurds were never able again to set up an independent state in their region.

But it is the last quarter of the book that sets the tone for the study. Professor Ahmad links the question of Mosul, a city previously under Turkey’s control and only awarded to British-controlled Iraq under international pressure after the end of the First World War, to the beginning of the Kurdish question in Iraq. He notes that the fact-finding missions that were sent to the area to assess the nationalist sympathies of the minorities in Mosul (and Kirkuk was one of the dependencies of Greater Mosul) met many Kurds who saw themselves as a distinct national category, but that these Kurdish aspirations were quashed by the British. Interestingly, the fact-finding mission sent out to the area by the League of Nations found that while the Turkmen were the majority in the city of Mosul, the Kurds were the majority in the wider province of Mosul itself. Meanwhile, as the negotiations were dragging on to award Mosul to Iraq in 1924, both Arab and Kurdish parliamentarians in Baghdad were calling attention to the fact that Kurdish as well as Arabic should be taught in the Greater Mosul area itself. And perhaps the most extraordinary fact uncovered by Professor Ahmad concerns the almost unanimous opinion among Kirkuk’s Kurds that joining the new state in Iraq would be preferable to remaining under Turkey’s rule.

I find this extraordinary because the situation is completely different today, with almost daily reports emanating from the Kurdish Region detailing the more or less secessionist tendencies among the majority of Kurds in Iraq. Perhaps we’ll have to await Professor Ahmad’s second volume (this book is the first of two volumes) in order to understand how that radical shift in attitude and opinion came about, and how the Baathist regime contributed to that development.

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Hala Fattah - 5/14/2004

Hi Ralph,
Yes, of course, you're right. The Kurds then as now would definitely have preferred autonomy to inclusion in any other state. But then and now, they've been given no real choice. In the 1920's, it was a choice between Iraq or Turkey. In 2004, its total independence (unrealistic, because of Turkey's threatening posture) to a federated region within Iraq. The latter seems possible at the moment, but as an experiment in self-government, I don't know how long it will last (because the other national groups in Iraq will fight it).

Ralph E. Luker - 5/14/2004

In your last paragraph, you contrast the preference of the Kurds incorporation with Iraq rather than Turkey then with the preference of the Kurds for autonomy rather than inclusion in Iraq now. But isn't it clear that consistently, then and now, the Kurds' first choice would be national autonomy as a Kurdish nation; and that, then and now, the Kurds' second choice is a high degree of autonomy within an Iraqi federation rather than incorporation into Turkey?

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