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Sheep Safely Graze: Iraq 1960

Roger Hudson details the defining role played by oil in the predominantly Kurdish-populated city of Kirkuk in Iraq.

An Arab shepherd minds his flock against the backdrop of a Kirkuk oil refinery in 1960, gifting the photographer with the kind of arresting juxtaposition editors love. But there are hidden depths and symbolism to this scene which will only become apparent in the following decades. As Iraq had emerged from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire after 1918, there had been much argument over whether Kurdish lands – to the north, and to the east of the Tigris – should be part of it. It was not until 1926 that the League of Nations finally ruled in favour of their inclusion. But then in 1927 oil was discovered near Kirkuk and the chances of this becoming a permanent settlement immediately took a turn for the worse. At 30 million, the Kurds are the world’s largest ethnic group without a country of its own, spread out through Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Kirkuk’s oil for them was potentially a powerful lever, but also it was an asset Iraq would want to keep in a close embrace, though it was not until the 1960s and 1970s that it really came into contention.

At that time Kirkuk’s population was made up of 59 per cent Kurds, 20 per cent Turkmen and less than 25 per cent Arabs. In 1970 the Autonomy Agreement was signed by Iraq’s new socialist Ba’ath Party rulers and the Kurds. This allowed for a census in 1977, intended to be the basis on which the extent of the Kurdistan region within Iraq was to be arrived at. But Mustafa Barzani, the Kurds’ leader, who had been in armed revolt from 1961 to 1970, mistrusted the Iraqis and in 1973 claimed the oil fields for his people. Initially he had support from the CIA, Israel and the Shah of Iran when he renewed the revolt, but in 1975 the Shah withdrew and was soon followed by the other two backers.  Barzani was defeated by Saddam Hussein and by 1979 he was dead, of cancer.  

By 1987 4,000 Kurdish villages had been erased and in 1988 there was the notorious chemical weapons attack on Halabja. It is reckoned that 180,000 Kurds were killed in that decade in what has been labelled the Anfal Campaign of genocide. George Bush Sr may have saved the Kurds from further wholesale massacre by declaring a No Fly Zone in 1991, as Saddam sought revenge after the First Gulf War, but between that time and the beginning of the Second Gulf War in 2003, 500,000 Kurds were systematically expelled and replaced by Arab families. Since then thousands of Kurds have returned to Kirkuk, which until 2012 was under the control of a combination of Kurdish Peshmerga militia, the Iraqi army and US forces. The Kurds encouraged western oil companies to explore further and they are now, it seems, sitting on 55 billion barrels, a quarter of Iraq’s total reserves. In 2013, frustrated by the corruption and delays of the Maliki regime in Baghdad, they opened a pipeline to Turkey and in February 2014 Baghdad retaliated by cutting off all payments to the Kurds. In June a virulent ingredient was added to the brew when fundamentalist Islamist ISIS forces seized Iraq’s second city Mosul and seemed set to take Kirkuk, as six Iraqi divisions melted away. With the blessing of Nuri al-Maliki, the Kurdish Peshmerga moved into the city and saved the day. 

In December 2014 the new Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, and the Kurdistan region leader, Massoud Barzani, son of Mustafa, signed a pact, allowing the Kurds to send 300,000 barrels a day to Turkey from Kirkuk, plus another 250,000 from other fields, with all selling to remain under Iraqi control. In return Iraq has resumed payment of the 17 per cent of the national budget that is the Kurds’ share and found one billion dollars for the Peshmerga, the only effective forces confronting ISIS. But how long will the question of independence for largely democratic, secular and prosperous Kurdistan remain in abeyance and will the Peshmerga be interested in carrying the fight into non-Kurdish areas of Iraq?

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