Iraq’s persistent fault line: The dangers of escalating tensions in Kirkuk

Recent escalations in Iraq’s contested Kirkuk province reveal the structural tensions inherent in the coalition government, posing a risk of Turkish and Iranian intervention and wider instability in the region

KIRKUK, IRAQ – SEPTEMBER 02: Supporters of KDP held a protest to demand re-opening of Kirkuk-Erbil highway in Kirkuk, Iraq on September 2, 2023. Protesters burned tires and blocked roads. Ali Makram Ghareeb / Anadolu Agency
Supporters of KDP held a protest to demand re-opening of Kirkuk-Erbil highway in Kirkuk, Iraq on September 2, 2023
Image by picture alliance / AA | Ali Makram Ghareeb

For the past century, Kirkuk has been the site of ethnic tension. Particularly since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, control of the disputed oil-rich province – which is populated by Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen – has been one of the country’s most contentious and destabilising issues. The semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, led by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), asserts that Kirkuk should be part of its jurisdiction and claimed de facto control from 2014 to 2017. Meanwhile, the Iraqi constitution stipulates that Kirkuk’s status will be determined by a referendum after a census is held – but this is yet to happen. Instead, after the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s (KDP) failed independence referendum in September 2017, the central government placed Kirkuk under its direct control.

But hostilities have recently escalated following a shock decision last month by Iraqi prime minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani to allow the KDP to resume control of their political offices and military base in Kirkuk city. Sudani’s decision sparked protests from Arab and Turkmen residents, which, in turn, led to counter-protests by Kurdish residents. Four people were killed in the unrest, prompting the Federal Supreme Court to pause its implementation. These events underscore the risks of Kirkuk’s unresolved status, which could be exacerbated by upcoming provincial elections in December and spread tensions to neighbouring Turkey and Iran – who have Kurdish populations – further heightening regional instability.

The events in Kirkuk echo the ethnic divisions that can immobilise Iraq – a country governed by a complex network of alliances that Sudani must navigate to keep his coalition government afloat. Although Kirkuk has been the Achilles heel of every Iraqi leader since 2003, the federal government had, until recently, managed to avoid any large escalations in tensions since taking back control from the KRG in 2017. Sudani’s relatively effective handling of the country’s challenges, coupled with the dramatic weakening of the KDP since their ill-fated 2017 referendum, made his decision to permit the KDP to return to Kirkuk, and thus rock the boat, unexpected.

Sudani’s weak positioning appears to have been driven by the necessity of balancing his fragmented coalition government. Contrary to the prevailing myth that the prime minister is only beholden to the Shia parties (and by extension Iran), he faces pressure from all parties that helped form the coalition government, including Kurdish parties. Sudani has since explained that he was simply implementing one of this coalition’s agreements, but its Arab parties, sensing the KDP’s weakness, are now unwilling to support the move.

This recent Kirkuk debacle was a clear mistake for a seasoned politician like Sudani. The deaths of four citizens in clashes between Kurdish protesters and security forces were avoidable. It was a costly error that predictably provoked his Arab coalition allies who have long sought to cement federal government control over Kirkuk. Observers assumed that Sudani’s tenure would be challenged by the disgruntled Muqtada al-Sadr, or by new protests related to demand for public sector employment, or electricity outages in the summer. But they did not expect him to be challenged by the reignition of ethnic divisions in Kirkuk which Sudani appears to have unwittingly brought upon himself.

While Kirkuk remains contested, risks of destabilisation will continue to hang over Iraq and the Sudani government. Although the prime minister has done well to hold his government together and steer Iraq through ongoing challenges, the reality is that profound questions – such as the fate of Kirkuk and the relationship between Baghdad and the KRG – remain unaddressed.

For Baghdad, there is a belief that if Kirkuk were to join Iraqi Kurdistan, it would be somehow leaving Iraq. For the KRG, incorporating Kirkuk would re-start their desired process of independence. Both beliefs are misplaced because whether Kirkuk remains a standalone governorate, becomes a region on its own, or joins the pre-existing region of Iraqi Kurdistan, it is part of a consolidated federal Iraqi state. Iraq’s political actors should not treat Kirkuk as a zero-sum game. Instead, they need to recognise that its status should be chosen by its citizens via a referendum, as set out in the Iraqi constitution.

Kirkuk’s unresolved status is a looming disruptor of Baghdad and KRG relations. Even if it is not the crisis of the hour, it is always a hotbed of tension and one ripe for political exploitation.

But for now, Kirkuk’s unresolved status is a looming disruptor of Baghdad and KRG relations. Even if it is not the crisis of the hour, it is always a hotbed of tension and one ripe for political exploitation. Firstly, while the announcement that Kirkuk will take part in the provincial elections in December – its first since 2005 – is a small step towards a representative pathway forward, there is a danger that political parties will continue to use the recent events to mobilise their voter base and further fuel polarisation and ethnic tensions. This would only heighten the security threat from Islamic State group (ISIS) sleeper cells who frequently exploit such situations. Secondly, these recent events have exposed a weakness in Sudani’s ability to harmonise the divisions in his coalition, increasing the fragility of the Sudani government. Lastly, as tensions between Baghdad and the KRG intensify, it leaves Iraqi Kurdistan vulnerable to meddling by Turkey and Iran, who worry that the Kirkuk’s sentiment for independence would spread to their own Kurdish population. For example, they have already intervened militarily in northern Iraq against their own Kurdish opposition present there.

Thus, any further escalation in tensions in Kirkuk may have destabilising effects across the region and beyond. European foreign ministries and their missions in Iraq must leverage their democracy-promoting projects to emphasise to Iraqi politicians that their parties are partners of a coalition government and of a federal state that requires commitment to democratic federalism. Without social harmony amongst Iraq’s diverse ethnic populations, the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and the NATO Mission Iraq, along with other European missions, will never achieve their goal.

Though Kirkuk is one province, it represents a regional fault line that can create instability throughout the Middle East. Until now, Sudani has continued to improve relations with neighbours since assuming power, despite having to navigate the internal divisions of his coalition government. However, this juggling act is made more difficult – and more precarious – when addressing legacy issues like Kirkuk. While a domestic and sensitive issue, European missions should help create the conditions for a solution by reiterating their support for Iraqi federalism and democracy. This can ease fears over Kirkuk’s status within the Iraqi state, calm relations with neighbouring Turkey and Iran, and prevent harming the security operations of the Global Coalition and the NATO Mission Iraq. This will then allow all three possible scenarios for Kirkuk’s future to be on equal footing before a status is chosen by the citizens of Kirkuk, via a referendum held by local government – as per the Iraqi constitution.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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