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Bahar T. Eskander, JFK Student Ambassador on “The takeover of Kirkuk”

“The Takeover of Kirkuk” was written by Justice for Kurds Student Ambassador Bahar T. Eskander, Master’s student in Philosophy, Politics & Economics (PPE) at Witten/Herdecke University in Germany.


by Bahar T. Eskander

March 15, 2018


Even months after the takeover of Kirkuk that took place on October 16, 2017 the subject is still open to new research as researchers are struggling with speculations on some inside information that is still hidden from public. What caused this outbreak between Kurdistan Region and the Central Government in Baghdad? Was it fueled by the September 25th independence referendum or has this been long coming? This paper is going to connect the both events and try to answer what led to the annexation of Kirkuk.

To understand the fighting that took place it is important to understand the complex relationship between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil. The Kurds are a minority who are ethnically distinct from the Iraq’s Arab population; they have lived under extreme oppression and have faced several genocide campaigns during Saddam’s Regime; but after the US invasion of 2003, in 2005 a new Iraqi constitution was set up that included a large degree of autonomy for the Kurds. The established Kurdistan Regional Government was to some degree, in practice, governing as a quasi-independent state. However, Kirkuk Governorate, located in the North-East of Iraq is an ethnically mixed area and has constitutionally not been under the control of KRG; and until today it remains an unresolved disputed area under the Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution along with Sinjar, Tal Afar, Til Keif, Sheikhan, Akre, Hamdaniya, Kifri and Khanaqin, Tuz, Makhmour, Al Hawija, Dibis, Daquq, and also the sub-district of Mandali and Balaruz district (2005, P. 45).

Kirkuk in particular has always been the most important province to both sides, for the Kurds and for the Iraqi government. For the Kurds it has historical grievances as Saddam has tried to ethnically cleanse them from the area and Arabized Kirkuk governorate by settling Arab families but undoubtedly also because of economic interests and for Baghdad it is mainly economic interest. According to Worldatlas estimates of 2018, Iraq is the fifth country in the world with the largest oil reserves; there are 5 super- giant oilfields that are mainly located in Kirkuk, Baghdad, and Basra (Dillinger, 2018). Also, according to multiple sources over the past few years have estimated that an approximation of Iraq’s oil reserves between 20 – 40% is located in Kirkuk Province (no clear statistics of precise estimation).

In 2003 the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) was established to advice and assist the Government and the Iraqi people (UNAMI, 2018). Fast-forward, the UNAMI has so far recommended a few resolutions for Article 140; the first referendum on disputed areas was to take place on November 15, 2007 and to not exceed December 31, 2007 this referendum was never carried out. New recommendation reports have been posed by UNAMI and also in 2006 and 2008 by the International Crisis Group (ICG) but also these recommendations were rejected; some have been rejected by the KRG, some by Baghdad, and some by both sides.

Research Approach:

The main focus in this paper is to find whether the takeover of Kirkuk had any relation to the Kurdish independence referendum or if it was a separate clash between the KRG and the central government. In order to help me identify the relationship between KRG and regional powers and the factors that led to the regional power’s intervention in this dispute I will rely on the geopolitical theory (Deudney, 2000, Pp. 80-81). As geopolitics is concerned with geopolitical factors, territory, population, strategic locations, and natural resources, it can help to explain the relationship between the geographical realities and the affairs between sovereign states in the region. The qualitative approach is the method of inquiry and in order to analyse the post-referendum situation in Kirkuk I analyse through the views of constructivism. According to Ruggie, constructivism focuses on how individuals shape their identity based on interactions (Ruggie, 1998, Pp. 855-885). Applying this theory to the current situation it will give a better understanding to why these political parties in KRG and its factions have the same goal but yet are incapable to unify.

The main question that guides this research is: What led to the annexation of Kirkuk?

Description of the Data Collection Process:

In order to analyse the post-referendum situation that occurred in Kirkuk I take the qualitative approach in collecting the data as method of inquiry. To describe the phenomenon in conceptual form the method approach is content analysis, hereby making use of deductive analysis in the process of analysing and synthesising the collected data. Since there is not one single correct way to use content analysis; the researcher can use a lot of data or just a small amount of data to help answer the research question (Thomas, 2006). The researcher can identify the themes in the text and categorize this content. The process of coding is by collecting keynotes that represent the original information to further analyse these themes (GAO, 1996). In this way the researcher uses it for judgment and evaluation of the data but can also use it to describe the perceptions of the author of the material. The selection of information is used in this paper are articles, formal government documents, and reports.

The Kirkuk dispute has taken various angles for interpretation, the gap this paper is filling is to interpret previous data and connect whether the overtake of Kirkuk was a result of the referendum; this does not take away that this continues to be a subject for further research. As for policy implication, what it appears is that the scenario’s of Kirkuk and the conflicts surrounding it, including the regional powers involved represents serious consequences which is why it is likely that Kirkuk is the dispute that is to eventually determine the future of Iraq.


After careful selection of data on the topic I collected different views on the internal factors behind the reason for holding the referendum and how it has impacted the takeover of Kirkuk. Tensions between KRG and Baghdad have risen since the US military withdrew from Iraq in 2011. In 2013, Kurdish peshmerga forces had been deployed to dispute territories and this caused for another upheaval from Baghdad interpreting this action as a clear sign for war (AFP, 2012). As such, casualties occurred among the Iraqi forces in a clash with the Peshmerga in November 2012 due to efforts of Iraqi forces trying to enter the Kurdistan Region (Bernawi, 2012). The biggest threat to Iraq’s long-term stability are the tensions between KRG and Baghdad over disputed area control, power-sharing, and oil production but also due to, at the time president Masoud Barzani, who openly was a base of support for East Kurdistan (Rojava) which lies in the Northeastern parts of Syria.

A New era began when the so-called ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS) came into existence in Syria and spilled over to Iraq and took over Mosul in August 2014. The Iraqi military at this point fled and left their military bases including weapons behind; all Iraqis feared their fate with the advances that ISIS was making. With the help of the US-led coalition that served as military aid to the Kurdish peshmerga they recaptured large parts from ISIS including Kirkuk and its giant oilfield and restored security in these regions.

The Iraqi government has been testing the KRG’s autonomous strengths throughout the recent years especially after ISIS. A Pentagon report states that the military arms supplies with the KRG’s share that were handed to the central government in Baghdad did not reach Erbil (Mylroei, 2016). Another share cut was in medical supplies while it was dealing with flood of IDP’s and refugees that needed medical attention, the wounded Peshmerga fighters and also most of the ISIS-members captured were brought to hospitals in the Kurdistan region. The biggest harm to Kurdistan Region’s stability was the budget cut since 2014; this has caused an enormous economical crisis that especially has made the life 1.2 million employees very difficult to survive on a day-to-day basis (Rudaw, 2017).

All of these issues added up to KRG’s motivation for holding the independence referendum and the moment Barzani announced the date for the referendum to be held on September 25, 2017 sparked national and international media attention. The motive for holding the referendum holds different claims that; 1) holding the referendum while still in the spotlight of international community and their appraisal for fighting ISIS effectively could mean support from the West especially their long-time Ally the US (Cockburn, 2017),
2) Due to political turmoil between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK-party) and Kurdistan Democratic Party (PDK-party) and the economic stalemate president Barzani (PDK-leader) wanted to distract the Kurdish peoples’ attention to their long-term aspirations for statehood (Doha Institute, 2017), 3) The president wanting to remain in power, 4) miscalculation of US-policy (Mansour, 2017).

Aside from these interpretations on ‘why’ the KRG held the referendum it is more important to focus on ‘how’ they did it; the inclusion of several areas that are considered disputed and as such had been stipulated in the Constitution were completely ignored by Barzani. The inclusion of Kirkuk caused regional involvement by mainly Iran and Turkey who warned Barzani about harsh responses if he was going to continue with the referendum; Ankara interpreted this action as ‘seizure of Kirkuk’ because the KRG was undermining the legitimacy of the Iraqi Constitution (Paksoy, 2017).

The takeover of Kirkuk on October 16, 2017 was a result of a reassured Baghdad by regional powers as well as the harsh rejection of the West, the US, UK, and the UN, calling the referendum illegitimate and ill timed that appeared as a green-light to Abadi (Chmaytelli & Toksabay, 2017) and (NPR, 2017). Looking at the different interpretations of the post-refendum, it appears that facts circle around between three main claims; 1) the overtake of Kirkuk was a result of KRG’s internal instability and treason by PUK leadership, 2) According to Barzani the overtake of Kirkuk would happen regardless, and the referendum was another excuse, 3) That Kirkuk seizure is subject of great power politics; especially considered the lack of US involvement even though it had threatened Iran harshly just days before the takeover, it still left a vacuum for Iran to broaden its influence in Iraq.


The motivation to hold the referendum was an advantage taken by the KDP leadership from the regional instability and the long-list of disputes it shared with Baghdad. A more clear motivation behind it has been the fact that the Kurdish people had lost hope and trust in the two dominant parties PDK and PUK who have failed over 2.5 decades to govern jointly and effective and above all have been extremely corrupt. Barzani used the referendum to avoid larger protests than those occurred in the recent years; in other words to avoid radical reforms.

PDK understood that as ISIS was losing ground and control, the peshmerga forces would eventually have to retreat from the recaptured ‘disputed territories’ or face military clashes with the Iraqi forces. By including the disputed territories, KRG aimed at claiming more land than the officially recognized borders stated in the constitution. It seems that Barzani wanted to use his last card to polish his reputation among his people over the Kurdish aspiration of independence just before stepping down and at the same time hoping to pressure the US to intervene more in the Erbil – Baghdad negotiations over disputes.

With the harsh speeches in the media from Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, the Kurdish opposition party Gorran (Change) and other unpopular factions from PUK opposed the holding of an independence referendum by reaching out to public and voicing that the referendum was another political card used by the KDP and that it would lead to great consequences.

Clearly due to longtime intra-Kurdish disputes of which all four neighboring countries are familiar with, these same neighboring powers used the referendum against the Kurds. Iran has a long history of their influence over the PUK; and thus it had pressured PUK strictly before the referendum was carried out. The son of former PUK leader and Iraqi president (Jalal Talabani 1933 – 2017), who never before has been politically active released a statement on October 12, saying: “I now call for the unconditional negotiations with Baghdad using the constitutional law written under the guidance of Mam Jalal. This way we can guarantee the rights of our people with the support of the international community. We stand under the specter of war, a war we do not need, a war we do not want.”

After the referendum Turkey, Iran and the Iraqi government sanctioned KRG economically, and in addition; Iraqi forces and Hashd Al-Shabi (Popular Mobilization Units – PMU) were positioned along the disputed territories and on the night of October 16th were commanded to take over the areas. Highly important and strategic areas, oilfields, and the Kirkuk Air base were under the control of the central government again, which immediately shatters the 100-year-old dream for independence, at least in the foreseeable future. It is obvious that the motive behind Kirkuk for the local, regional and international powers to intervene are because of its oil.

The PUK elites; Hero Khan, Bafel Talabani, Lahur Talabani and Alla Talabani have been accused of treason, and the next day on October 17 had been confirmed by president Barzani himself that due to some Kurdish political figures within a certain party is what led to the takeover of Kirkuk. It is however doubtful to believe Barzani had been shortsighted to this extent; he was fully aware of the opposition, and knew that if intra- Kurdish politics is disunited at this point it makes little sense to continue, as outside his door bigger challenges are awaiting while the US and other allies are not willing to stir regional relations over the Kurds. However, if Kirkuk had not been included the risk scenario might have been different; Baghdad would automatically have claim to Kirkuk, and the chance of including Kirkuk to future Kurdistan would have been impossible. Even though Kurdistan made great losses with including Kirkuk, but the advantage is that Kirkuk will continue to be a ‘disputed area’.

The more information about the Kurdish referendum appears the more questions are can be raised. On the one hand the KRG’s institutional chaos filled with corruption and political parties rivalry rising again as in the 1990s along with the economical crisis, the PUK and PDK were losing popularity among its people, on the other, the weak and incapable central government along regional instability has caused a vacuum for the KDP to take advantage of the situation. This brings out the conclusion that motivation behind risking Kirkuk was not so much a national Kurdish aspiration as to do with internal Kurdish politics and the long-term failing relations with Baghdad.

The pros of this research are that the data available makes it easy to a certain extent to analyse the situation and reach to an answer to the question posed in this research. However, the cons are that as this is a subject of political conflict occurring in the Middle East, it means that many other regional factors play an important role. For instance, the Kurds being spread over Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq already clarifies why the Iraqi Kurd’s referendum has caused an upheaval in the region and for these countries to intervene in the sovereign state of Iraq. Therefore, as much as one can analyse the Kurdish internal causes that led to Kirkuk seizure; it remains only a part of the bigger picture. Other limitations are that the role of the media in war disputes faces certain limitations such as governments wanting to keep out media to prevent sensitive information; therefore the liability of the information leaves authors interpretation of available facts.


The takeover of Kirkuk bores down to 2 scenarios; 1) Barzani knew the risks of holding the referendum with including the disputed territories, 2) not holding the referendum could end in paying a too high price. In the latter scenario; on the one hand dealing with serious fragmentation within his government and radical protests from his people demanding reform and new government, on the other hand face volatile clashes with the Iraqi forces and PMU over Kirkuk’s strategic areas while his Western allies look away, a history in repeat which they are too familiar with.

Even though the internal factors were a great reason for the takeover of Kirkuk, it stays an interesting topic to also look into the outside factors that caused Prime Minister Abadi to be emboldened towards Kurds. Also, tackling down the risks that the US faced in case of pressuring KRG to the point that they would postpone the referendum; it could have left them paying a higher price with the proposal of offering mediation in negotiations with Baghdad. That is to say, if the negotiations were to fail, the Kurds would hold the referendum after the two years which could have put the US in a situation of paying the higher price in the region. Further research on the regional and international powers and the level of intervention in Kirkuk dispute could be of importance. This could also help in identifying the factors for PUK’s treason; whether this had to do from within KRG or whether it had no way out of the Iranian pressure.


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