City of Black Gold
Oil, Ethnicity, and the Making of Modern Kirkuk
Arbella Bet-Shlimon



Kirkuk is a city in crisis. It is ethnically segregated and politically stagnant. Mutual mistrust between its communities runs deep. For decades its residents have had to contend with a constant war of words over the city’s status, punctuated by episodic violence. Under the Baʿth government of Saddam Hussein, Kirkuk was a key target of the campaign of ethnic cleansing that ravaged northern Iraq (Figure 1). After a U.S.-led military operation overthrew the Iraqi Baʿth regime in 2003, the disputes over Kirkuk’s future stymied attempts to construct a democratic legal and political system for the entire country. Iraqi lawmakers and foreign policymakers have spent the years since attempting to address the urgent need to resolve rival claims to control Kirkuk—and, by extension, rival claims to the city’s identity.

The first such effort to settle lingering conflicts over Kirkuk was written into Iraq’s provisional legal document, the 2004 Transitional Administrative Law. Article 58 of that document detailed a process by which authorities would mitigate and remedy Baʿth atrocities in Iraq’s disputed territories, of which Kirkuk is by far the most prominent. First, the Iraqi government would conduct a full census for the first time since 1957. Then, officials would begin resettling and compensating Kirkuki residents who had been displaced. Most important, Article 58 affirmed that those affected could “determine their own national identity and racial (ʿirqi) affiliation without coercion or pressure.”1 After that process was complete, the article declared, Kirkukis would vote on their desired political status. When the formal Constitution of Iraq was ratified by a national vote a year later, its Article 140 reiterated this plan and called for “a referendum in Kirkuk and the other disputed territories to determine the will of their citizens”; the referendum was to be held no later than 31 December 2007.2

More than a decade later, the process of resolving the disputes over Kirkuk has not begun in any meaningful way. There has been no census. The exact parameters of the promised referendum—what, exactly, are the options for Kirkuk’s political status?—were never defined. Because the constitution failed to account for what would happen if the official deadline was not met, 31 December 2007 came and went without consequence.

FIGURE 1. Kirkuk and its surrounding region.

Meanwhile, the uncertainty over Kirkuk’s future was holding back Iraq’s national politics. The country’s provincial elections, scheduled for 2008, were delayed until 2009 because the Iraqi parliament could not pass an election law that included Kirkuk in a way that met the differing demands of Kurdish, Turkmen, and Arab lawmakers.3 In the end, the Kirkuk province sat out the 2009 provincial elections altogether. With tensions still high, it did so again in 2013.

Throughout these years Iraq’s national security forces repeatedly faced off with Kurdish troops, known as pêşmerge, in tense standoffs on the outskirts of the city. In 2014, amid a power vacuum created by the Islamic State’s takeover of nearby Mosul, pêşmerge seized Kirkuk and all but officially declared it to be part of Kurdistan. In 2017 the Iraqi army seized the city back.

Amid all this conflict it has been easy for most Iraqis, as well as international diplomats, mediators, and journalists, to accept that Kirkuk is Iraq’s Sarajevo or Nicosia—a tinderbox of ethnic tensions. The assumption of ethnic conflict as an inevitable characteristic of a place, however, should not foreclose further questions about where that state of contestation came from. Identifying a conflict’s origins—and the origins of its disputants’ claims—can also reveal its limits.

According to the most common perspectives on Kirkuk, its three major ethnic groups are Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmens, each of which has a competing claim to own the city. Kurds, hoping to attach Kirkuk to the autonomous Kurdistan region in Iraq’s northeast, refer to the city as the “Kurdish Jerusalem” and the “heart of Kurdistan.”4 On the other side of the dispute, Turkmens, Arabs, and members of the city’s smaller minorities dread the prospect of being integrated into Kurdistan and would rather remain aligned with Baghdad.

Accordingly, when elections are held in Kirkuk, pundits assume that members of each ethnic group have voted for their corresponding ethnic parties: Kurds for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) or the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Turkmens for the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF), and Arabs for parties that present themselves as nonethnic. These assumptions are so widely accepted that political scientists have asserted that the results of national parliamentary elections in Kirkuk can be used as a “rough and ready census” that can “reveal Kirkuk’s ethnic makeup for the first time” since the last full Iraqi census in 1957.5

The politics of ethnicity are so thoroughly embedded in Kirkuk’s everyday functioning that security forces use ethnic labels as a form of shorthand when apprehending suspects. In a 2007 documentary about Kirkuk by the Kirkuki Kurdish filmmaker and actor Karzan Sherabayani, the viewer witnesses the gruesome aftermath of an October 2005 car bomb attack on the Kirkuk police force that killed two officers and wounded two others. Nearby, three handcuffed, blindfolded men are dragged into the back of a flatbed truck by Arabic-speaking soldiers of the Iraqi army. Each of the men has a large placard hanging around his neck bearing handwritten information—in English—for several categories: name, age, location, and ethnicity. According to the placards, all the men are Arabs. Blindfolded and uncertain of their fate, they weep in despair and protest, in Arabic, that they are innocent.6 What does the ethnic categorization of a terrorism suspect reveal about the likelihood of his guilt? It is not entirely clear, but the very act of this public labeling betrays the extent to which positions in Kirkuk’s conflict are presumed by all involved to rely on an individual’s ethnicity.

Scholars who have focused on Kirkuk since 2003 have mainly studied the city from the perspective of conflict resolution and have operated almost exclusively within an ethnopolitical paradigm.7 Political scientists and journalists writing about Kirkuk have typically held that the crisis is best understood as a clash of three main narratives, each primarily associated with an ethnic self-identity. The Kurdish narrative asserts that Kirkuk is rightfully a part of Kurdistan, and its proponents often try to make the case that the city has always been Kurdish. The Turkmen narrative holds that Kirkuk is a historically Turkmen city that has undergone demographic changes but has retained its Turkmen character. The Arab narrative does not try to claim that Kirkuk has ever been an Arab-majority city but instead insists that the city is a multiethnic “Iraqi” city first and foremost and hence that it must retain its pluralistic identity.8

Why do these groups fight over Kirkuk? Most commentators, whether implicitly or explicitly, offer a simple answer: oil. After all, the city rests atop a supergiant oil field. For much of the twentieth century, before the development of larger fields in southern Iraq, Kirkuk was the heart of the country’s oil industry. Kirkuk’s oil fueled its growth. It also made both the city and its hinterland a strategically crucial region for Baghdad, which went to great lengths—sometimes quietly, sometimes brutally—to integrate the largely non-Arab area into mostly Arab Iraq. One would be hard-pressed to find a discussion of Kirkuk’s political crisis since 2003 that does not contain the modifier “oil-rich” to describe the city.

Yet the idea of oil as a cause of Kirkuk’s ethnic conflict is seldom explored in any great detail. What does it mean, specifically, for a dispute to be about oil?

It is not only “about oil” in the simplistic sense that Kirkukis have no stakes in other forms of control and legitimacy. Indeed, claims to Kirkuk’s history and culture are a powerful factor in the dispute over its status even in parts of Iraq far from the city itself. For example, in 2011, while driving through a rural part of Arbil Governorate about 130 kilometers north of Kirkuk, I saw the words “Kirkuk is the heart of Kurdistan” spray-painted in Arabic and Kurdish on a cliff near a Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) military checkpoint. And when the Kurdish nationalist leader Jalal Talabani invoked the idea that Kirkuk is the “Kurdish Jerusalem” in 2011 during his term as Iraq’s president, many residents of Baghdad were so deeply affronted by this notion that they took to the streets in protest.9

The city of Kirkuk is also an omnipresent theme in Iraqi Turkmen discourses, both popular and literary. Turkmen writers, representing a much smaller group than the Kurds, have referred to Kirkuk as the “ancestral capital” of their people.10 A viewer of the Turkish-language Iraqi satellite television channel Türkmeneli TV will notice that it features bilingual Arabic and Turkish advertisements for businesses that are almost exclusively located in Kirkuk, an indication that the city is the dominant social and economic center of the Iraqi Turkmen community.

To someone familiar with the ethnic and sectarian violence of Iraq’s recent history, all these contemporary problems may seem obvious and expected. But the assumptions about Kirkuk’s ethnic politics just outlined, while not always inaccurate, are ahistorical and thus superficial. Emotive comparisons to Jerusalem and the disturbing sight of suspected criminals burdened with ethnicity-identifying placards would have been baffling to a Kirkuki observer around the turn of the twentieth century. At that time, Kirkuk was a site of relative stability in northern Mesopotamia, a key stop on travel routes between Baghdad and Syria’s major cities, and the location of an Ottoman garrison.

In a memoir of a visit to Kirkuk in 1909, a British military officer named E. B. Soane celebrated the presence of a diverse array of people—“Jew, Arab, Syrian, Armenian, Chaldean, Turk, Turkoman, and Kurd”—in the city. He described Kirkuk’s urban public spaces as “indifferently” multilingual and asserted that this state of affairs afforded the city “considerable freedom from fanaticism.”11 Similarly, in a 2001 interview, the late Kirkuki poet Sargon Boulus recalled that the city in his youth had been a “crucible” of parlances whose multilingualism nurtured his development as a writer.12 It is clear that communal social-linguistic identities—what scholars today usually call ethnicities—have long existed in Kirkuk. They were not, however, constant in definition, nor were they sites of political mobilization or the cleavage lines in a territorial status dispute until relatively recently.

How, then, did ethnic identities in Kirkuk develop into the institutionalized Kurdish-Arab-Turkmen schema with which Iraqis are so familiar today? How did these ethnicities become politically salient?

And what role did oil really play in that process? In his documentary, Karzan Sherabayani, like many Kirkukis, condemns Kirkuk’s oil for the trouble it has brought to the city. He calls oil a “black curse,” tacitly referring to a common nickname for Kirkuk in its native languages, City of Black Gold. “In a way, I wish we never had it,” he says to the camera. “The only thing this brought to us is disaster.” Yet the film also makes clear that oil is inextricably bound up in the city’s identity. In another scene the manager of a fueling station gives his friend free gasoline ahead of a long line of cars waiting to purchase it. With a laugh, he explains, “In Europe, people give flowers to their friends as gifts. Here, we give petrol.” Oil is central to Kirkukis’ popular imagination and everyday interactions, including their interactions with ethnicity. This phenomenon is what this book aims to understand.


1. “Qanun Idarat al-Dawla al-ʿIraqiyya fi-l-Fatra al-Intiqaliyya,” BBC Arabic, 7 March 2004, (accessed 1 July 2018).

2. This quote is excerpted and translated from the longer text of the original article. “Dustur Jumhuriyyat al-ʿIraq,” (accessed 1 July 2018).

3. Campbell Robertson and Atheer Kakan, “Iraqi Parliament Returns to Tackle Issue of Election Law,” New York Times, 9 September 2008, (accessed 1 July 2018).

4. See, for instance, Zanger, “Refugees in Their Own Country.”

5. L. Anderson and Stansfield, Crisis in Kirkuk, 140.

6. Karzan Sherabayani, Return to Kirkuk: A Year in the Fire (New York: Eagle Media, 2007), DVD.

7. Recent political-scientific studies of the Kirkuk issue include L. Anderson and Stansfield, Crisis in Kirkuk; Natali, “Settlers and State Building”; Romano, “Future of Kirkuk”; and Wolff, “Governing (in) Kirkuk.”

8. L. Anderson and Stansfield, Crisis in Kirkuk, 56–86.

9. Sinan Salaheddin, “Bomb Kills 10 Iraqi Troops as Ethnic Tensions Rise,” Washington Post, 14 March 2011, (accessed 1 July 2018).

10. See, for instance, Güçlü, “Who Owns Kirkuk?”

11. Soane, To Mesopotamia and Kurdistan, 120–24.

12. Al-Maʿali, “al-Shaʿir Sarkun Bulus,” 104.