ISIS seek a rebirth in Iraq and attempt to capitalise on political and ethnic disputes in Kirkuk

1st June 2019

A series of explosions in Iraq’s disputed city of Kirkuk led to a reported five people dead and eighteen people wounded on Thursday night as the head of the city’s security operations blamed the attack on ISIS. The instability in Kirkuk, which stems from constitutional and political disputes between the Federal Government in Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), makes the region incredibly prone to security threats. The continued failure to solve political disputes in hot spots will motivate and encourage ISIS to capitalise on it, just as they did in 2014 when protests in Sunni-Arab areas against the Shia Islamist-led government of Nouri al-Maliki turned into an insurgency by Sunni Islamists, neo-Baathists and tribalists before an eventual ISIS takeover.

The city of Kirkuk has long been the centre of ethnic dispute in Iraq, and not without reason. The Kurds have long held the region as their Jerusalem, an analogy made to show the important and central status it has to their history. Peace agreements and autonomy arrangements between Kurdish rebel movements of the past and former regimes in Iraq have broken down over the failure to firmly determine the status of Kirkuk, leading to ongoing bloodshed that has still affected the present day. Kirkuk, a city populated by Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens and Assyrian Christians, underwent a process of Arabisation under the former Ba’ath government, expelling thousands of non-Arabs and replacing them with Arabs from different parts of Iraq that were compensated. The tampering with the demography was clearly down the rich oil reserves of the city, thereby attempting quell ethnic claims to the city and keep it firmly under the state’s control.

Fast forward to the 21st century. Saddam’s overthrow allowed the formation of a new governing system in Iraq and a new constitution. Kurdistan, which had been de-facto autonomous since 1991, had their governing territory formerly recognised by the 2005 Iraqi Constitution as a federal region, with the status of Kirkuk remaining constitutionally disputed until the implementation of Article 140. Article 140 of the constitution stipulated the “normalisation” of the city (relocating Arabs who migrated back to their cities of origins and allowing the return of those who were expelled), an ethnic census and a referendum on whether the province joins the Kurdistan Region, no later than 2007. This, of course, was never implemented and later became part of one of the ongoing disputes between the Federal Government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Region. These unresolved disputes played an eventual role in Kurdistan’s unilateral independence referendum in 2017, which included Kirkuk as the Iraqi Army were no longer in control of the city following the collapse of security positions in 2014 as ISIS conquered one-third of Iraq. With the green light of regional countries and the international community, Iraqi security forces and allied militias were able to enforce their return in areas considered ‘disputed’ by the constitution, leaving Kirkuk’s future up in the air. 

So long as ethnic and political disputes in Kirkuk remain, Islamist terrorist groups such as ISIS will attempt to capitalise on it in the hope of their rebirth. It has become quite clear that Article 140 of Iraq’s constitution has become an unpragmatic solution despite its legal standing, and alternative solutions are needed to keep the city secure. One possible option could be the upgrading of Kirkuk’s status from a province to a federal region. This, alongside the return of the original provincial borders (prior to Arabisation) and a power sharing political and security arrangement between the ethnic communities of Kirkuk could most certainly stabilise the region from external terrorist threats. Unless Iraq breaks up at some point in the future or an internationally recognised independent Kurdistan arises, the only realistic outcome for Kirkuk at this current time is one of compromise.