kirkuk – a city’s frontline in the middle east

when i think of kirkuk, i see plastic bags waving in the wind, caught up in barbwire. kirkuk is made up of many walls, protected by barbwire on top. it is there that many lonely plastic bags have been caught; so many in fact, i wonder whether some were actually put there on purpose. they are black and blue, pink, white and yellow. and they dance in the wind as the cars drive bye.
it is this scene which is descriptive of kirkuk to me: it looks peaceful, colors flying, waving in the wind. soft hills of yellow flowers -at least when visiting kurdistan in spring, and men walking and sitting on the dusty streets off the tarmac. yet just as the plastic bags are caught in a barbwire, so are the people. the walls and fences are a symbol of the constant battle of the city and its people; from within and from without.

as i flip through the pictures with former brigadier general of the first front line i visited in kirkuk back in 2014, he keeps pointing at faces he recognizes: dead, dead, dead. the number of dead people on my phone increases. they are called “martyrs” among the kurds. some of their faces decorate the side of the street, usually along the military checkpoints. all of them decorate the memories of their brothers in arms. i have yet to hear a story of a front line without getting the toll of their dead and wounded. and yet it seems that the danger in kirkuk is not isis but their own internal fragility.

back in 2014, the war with isis seemed to have strengthened the security of kirkuk. kurdish soldiers flooded into the area, putting up check points and drawing the border to daesh carefully along the lines of ethnic belonging between kurds and arabs and turks in the historically torn city. bombing attacks went down. from three a day to one or two a week. the war seemed indeed to be pushed outside of the city towards the front lines. and everybody was involved in kirkuk – all parties and all nations. the governor is put up by the southern kurdish party, puk, who have a traditionally strong influence in the city. but the kurdish democratic party, kdp, is also present in kirkuk due to its historical importance for kurdish self-perception and identity as well as their better influence with the turks, who are in the area because of the high number of turkmen living in this city (nationality does not necessarily end by a different passport if one believes in ethnic-blood). also the kurds of iran are in the city, and a while ago, i also came across the pkk of turkey. and the sole presence of the puk can allow the assumption for a certain degree of iranian influence as well – something that is strongly confirmed by the kurds of iran who are equally as worried about iran in their back as they are about isis in their front. and with all of that, one can of course not overlook the arab elements which stirr up the already explosive mix in addition. tellings of history depart on the “why and how” of the arabization of kirkuk but no one disputes the fact that under saddam hussein’s regime, an influx of arab settlers spread across the kirkuk governorate and the city in particular. it is those elements today that are (often correctly) suspected of working with isis – harboring their soldiers, spying on the kurdish efforts, and even deploying like sleeper cells within the city. but just as not all arabs are bad and all kurds or turks are good – the balance within the multi-ethnic city is more fragile than ever.

at the moment, the city is split in three parts: kurdish, arabic and turkmen. two internal securities, so called assayish on both sides, patrol the streets. but despite the pressence of forces, the city increasingly breaks into ever smaller parts. it is exactly this tripartition that creates power vacuums which are increasingly filled by small gangs. the increasing economic difficulties in the entire region of iraqi kurdistan has left people to a level of despair that any method of income has become acceptable. street robbery and crime has increased massively – felt by myself only in the increased care my kurdish friends paid towards my safety in traveling through kirkuk. when a year ago i still drove in a private car with my translator, this time we had two personal guards on board. but just like last year, i hope that one day, the plastic bags can be replaced by flags and flowers, while at the same time fearing that this city has yet to see the fiercest fighting over every single inch of its territory. and so, in a fragile balance, towards an unknown future, life continues …

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