Every year, locals in the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan celebrate Flag Day. It’s a day during which members of the Kurdish ethnic group celebrate their aspirations to nationhood and their feelings of unity toward other Kurds living in Syria, Iran and Turkey; the Kurdish remain one of the largest ethnic groups in the world without their own country and are spread throughout those nations and Iraq.
The commemoration was established by the Iraqi Kurdish parliament around nine years ago and every year since then, schools, universities, government buildings and many others celebrate with assorted ceremonies on Flag Day, December 17, while individuals show their pride by posting the flag all over social media.
This year there was one city where celebrating the Kurdish flag wasn’t particularly easy or pleasant though. The northern city of Kirkuk has been considered an Iraqi flashpoint for years because of the wide mix of ethnic and sectarian groups living there. The Kurdish have claimed the city for years and in many ways, were de-facto in charge. But 2017’s ill-fated Kurdish referendum on independence saw the city return to the control of the Iraqi federal government.
We will continue to consider that Kirkuk is under military rule … until the flag of Kurdistan flies in Kirkuk again.
Usually in Kirkuk, various Kurdish groups and parties come together to decide how Flag Day will be celebrated in mid-December. That meeting didn’t take place this year. What did happen was that the Kurdistan Communist Party raised the Kurdish flag over its own headquarters.
“After we raised the flag we were warned more than once by the Iraqi counter-terrorism forces that we should remove it,” says Bakhtiar Mohammed, a senior member of the Communist Party. “But we decided not to do so. So they came here and removed it for us.”
Other Kurdish politicians in the area appeared to be both annoyed by the Communists’ move and slightly envious.
“If the party was aiming to try and normalize the relations [between the Kurds and the Arabs] in Kirkuk, they should be aware we have far bigger problems than a flag,” one official from the largest political party in this area, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, told NIQASH.
“There are other things happening in Kirkuk that are far more important than the flag raising,” added Rawand Mulla Mahmoud, deputy head of the PUK in Kirkuk. “There is the ongoing Arab-ization of Kirkuk as well as not choosing a Kurdish person as governor. We need to come together to find solutions to these things in Kirkuk,” he argued.
For example, Rakan Saeed al-Jibouri, the acting governor of Kirkuk and an Arab politician, recently agreed to give agricultural land to over 50 Arab families. The decision is controversial because some see the land as belonging to Kurdish locals. After an intervention by the country’s new president, Iraqi Kurdish politician Barham Salih, Iraq’s highest court ruled that the Kirkuk governor had not acted appropriately and that any issues over the property needed to be resolved in other ways.
The idea of Arab-ization – that is, changing the demographic makeup of the area so that one ethnicity dominates it was something that former Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein was well known for. He tried to push Kurds out of areas where they had previously been dominant and this is one of the issues at the heart of the battle for supremacy in Kirkuk: The Kurds say they were here first, while the Arabs say Kirkuk belongs to Iraq. The issue is supposed to be resolved constitutionally with a census and an eventual referendum. In reality, all this has done so far is to have the opposing sides try to get more voters living in the disputed area, so that when it eventually does come to a vote or a headcount, superior numbers will win.
The PUK says it intends to organize protests about the new governor’s behaviour.
Kurdish flag-raising has been a problem in Kirkuk before. In March 2017, the former Kurdish governor of Kirkuk, Najmuddin Karim, caused controversy when, with the support of most council members, he decided to raise the flag over all state institutions here. Whether he had a right to do so was eventually also debated in Iraq’s highest court. Even after the court decided that he did not, local politicians refused to obey the court order because, they complained, it was politically motivated. Even after the independence referendum upset the situation in Kirkuk, a Kurdish flag was raised over PUK headquarters in February 2018. It was removed after just a few hours.
“Raising the Kurdish flag is illegal and Kurdish parties should abide by the decision of the courts in Baghdad,” says Mohammed Khader, an Arab politician in the provincial government.
For many Kurdish locals, the whole issue of the flag and Kurdish control of Kirkuk is also linked to the absence of Iraqi Kurdistan’s other large political party. Of around 33 senior officials belonging to the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, only one has returned to their job in Kirkuk since the conflict and clashes here in 2017. That is the head of a Kurdish section at the provincial department of education. All of the other senior jobs formerly held by members of the KDP are being done by Arab or Turkman locals.
The KDP has been staunch about its insistence that Kirkuk is “occupied”.
“The KDP will return to Kirkuk when the Kurdish flag does,” says Fatih Bek, a ranking KDP party member for Kirkuk. “That is why no [KDP] official has returned to Kirkuk as yet. We will continue to consider that Kirkuk is under military rule and that there is a process of Arab-ization going on, until the flag of Kurdistan flies in Kirkuk again, the way it used to fly there before October 2017.”