Kirkuk—On June 20, while temperatures in eastern Iraqi Kurdistan soared past 110 degrees, a platoon of uniformed and armed Kurdish peshmerga were stopped on the shoulder of a wide highway, crouched in the meager shade of their minibus. The peshmerga (whose name means “those who face death”) had been on their way from Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan’s eastern second city, to Kirkuk when a rear tire popped, stranding them.
It was a big tire and a hot day, and the soldiers’ stiff camouflage trapped the Iraqi sun for the hour it took the dozen of them to change the flat, but still, their spirits were high. They were heroes. Ever since June 10, when militants with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), allied with foreign jihadists, Baathists and local Sunni tribal leaders, had taken over Mosul on the border with Iraqi Kurdistan, the peshmerga have protected the semi-autonomous north of Iraq, filling in when the Iraqi army swiftly backed down. Not only have the peshmerga managed to secure a 620-mile-long border stretch from the extremists, they also secured Kirkuk, an oil-rich and ethnically diverse territory that Kurds refer to as their Jerusalem. It is a pivotal time to be a peshmerga.
“We’re going to save Kirkuk,” the commander (who did not have authority to give his name) told me. “We want to tell the people that they are saved.” His battalion gathered around us, sweaty hands slipping over the grips of their Kalashnikovs. It was their third time going to the front lines, they said. Their last battle was one week prior, in Mullah Abdullah, a town west of Kirkuk where fighting between ISIS and peshmerga had been particularly intense. Four were wounded that day by ISIS snipers, according to the commander. They were nervous about fighting, and did not underestimate their enemy. But in the end, they had won and secured the town. And no, they told me, they weren’t hot in their uniforms. “Of course we are proud to be in the fight,” the commander said. “Kirkuk is our city.”
Kirkuk is populated by Turkmen, Arabs, Assyrians and Kurds, all of whom cite a historical claim to the oil-rich territory. Because of this, the area has often found itself the center of conflict. Saddam Hussein was single-minded in his oppression of dissenting voices, and in Kirkuk he targeted the large Kurdish population. Starting in 1991, more than 100,000 Kurds were expelled and Arab families settled in their place, in a program now commonly referred to as “Arabization.” After the US-led invasion in 2003, Kurds began to move back to Kirkuk. The resettlement was both a homecoming and the beginning of a declaration of ownership, one that the peshmerga underscored when they took over the city this month. Kirkuk, as the commander said, felt like their city. And it is, partly.
When I first visited Kirkuk in April, at the end of election season, it was tense but lively. Over the course of one afternoon I met a Kurdish feminist, Arab and Turkmen politicians, and a Kurdish bookseller. Each conversation was intense and emotional, each person’s commitment to stay in their home, even during war, apparent. The feminist had lost half her family fleeing Saddam’s army in 1991. She wept at the thought of ever leaving Kirkuk again. In the Kurdish bookseller’s shop, I spoke to an Arab poet who longed for the monarchy, before dictators. A Kurdish politician swore that if he were elected he would dig a trench around the city to protect it from terrorism. ISIS fighters had already seized areas in Anbar province, a prelude to the current crisis, and the politician knew well what it felt like to fear extremist groups; in 2008 his entire family was killed by a suicide bomber while they ate dinner in a local restaurant. Footprints were embedded in the concrete where the bomber had sat.
By June 20, 2014, that restaurant had been rebuilt and ISIS had taken over areas west of Kirkuk. The city, when I arrived in the late morning, was quiet. In Baiji, about fifty miles southwest of Kirkuk, ISIS militants had stormed Iraq’s largest oil refinery, and gasoline was scarce. In Sulaymaniyah and Erbil, cars queued in the hundreds waiting to fill their tanks. In Kirkuk, the stations were closed. “No one has gas to drive,” a middle-aged gold seller told me. We sat beside an air cooler on long sofas in his lime green living room, drinking cold water. Twenty liters of gas cost $30, he said. Outside in his garden, below the water cooler’s motor, he had stored two twenty-liter jugs of gasoline, and another jug sat in the hallway upstairs. “It’s enough to get us from here to Sulaymaniyah,” he said.
The gold seller was not optimistic. He had closed his shop, and worried that neighbors who knew about his line of work might try to rob him in his home. Electricity was spotty, and there was no Internet. The whole family—his wife, his grown son and young daughter, and his elderly mother who frowned silently on a love seat across the living room—was scared. “We don’t have enough rice,” the grandmother, whose life had been a series of wars, said. “It won’t stop,” said the father. “It will be like Anbar and Falluja. Six months ago fighting started there, and it still continues.” He shook his head. “In this country there’s always war, war, war.”
On Friday, the Muslim holy day, it is normal for cities and towns to slow down. Families cook and eat long meals together. Shops close early in the afternoons. Mosques play extended, detailed sermons from their minaret loudspeakers, calling the devout to prayer. But that Friday in Kirkuk the muezzin’s call was clipped, the shops bolted long before noon, and the streets virtually empty. A few cars drove slowly through what are normally busy boulevards, and a woman sat in the shade of a small tree with her infant in her lap, selling packs of tissues. Along the side streets, a man pedaled his bike sluggishly, looking dazed. It was as though Kirkuk—even while spectacular battles for the future of Iraq took place nearby, and even though it lived on the lip of a miraculously safeguarded region—didn’t want to draw attention to itself.
But, like the feminist I met in April and the family in the lime green living room, people were unwilling to leave. A few stores remained open that Friday; they had goods that internally displaced people who had fled Falluja, Mosul, Hawija and elsewhere in Kurdistan might want. Thirty-seven-year-old Sabah Mustafa sold blankets and thin foam pallets from a shop along Kirkuk’s main road. He said he had no customers, but he was intent on showing his resilience. Kirkuk was home. “I’m shocked when I see people lining up and buying gas,” he told me, perched atop a rolled-up carpet. “This is our city. We have to stay.” With his T-shirt stretched over an impressive belly, Mustafa looked unprepared for combat. But he pledged to join the war, if he had to. “I am not peshmerga or police,” he said. “But I have a Kalashnikov and I will fight for my city.”
Mustafa, like most people I met in Kirkuk, professed an adamance that the city’s diversity was its hallmark. In a country whose ethnic and religious divides are exploding into the forefront, Kirkuk is unique. Locals are intertwined, and many speak Arabic, Turkmen and Sorani Kurdish. At a peshmerga outpost between Kirkuk city and Hawija, among the soldiers who are said to be motivated solely by Kurdish nationalism, I heard what was by then a familiar refrain. “We want to save Kirkuk for all the people,” a commander named Latif Sabir told me, impatiently. “Turkmen, Arabs, Kurds, Christians. It’s all the same city.”
But there was one group that many in Kirkuk wanted to keep at arm’s length. They represented a threat. In a college dormitory, six Sunni Arabs, transplants from Hawija, lay half-asleep on floor pallets. They were studying engineering in Kirkuk, and spent hot Fridays napping in front of an air cooler and listening to the radio. They praised ISIS, who they considered to be leading a Sunni revolution against Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. “ISIS helps any man and woman in Hawija,” an outspoken young man in a beige dishdasha said. “There are no problems there with gas or electricity.”
His skinny, black-haired friend spoke each word like it was a heavy projectile, his eyes wide, insistent. His family had left Hawija for Sulaymaniyah, and he was worried about seeing them again. Even in a dorm in Kirkuk, he was tethered to the war in his town. “We don’t call them DAASH”—Arabic for ISIS—“we call them a Sunni army,” he told me.
It was this pro-ISIS rhetoric that made this clique of young students the true outcasts of Kirkuk. “No one supports ISIS,” Mustafa, the carpet seller, had told me. “No Kurds, no Turkmen, no Shia Arab. But we don’t trust the Sunni Arabs in Kirkuk.”
Perhaps it’s true that locals in Hawija are happy about ISIS being in their town, maintaining electricity and threatening to execute Shiite soldiers, but even in Kirkuk city, close to the front lines, news can be hard to confirm. Haji Kirkuky, a local journalist, had to rely on phone calls from friends in Hawija. “For three days ISIS came to people like they were angels,” he told me when we met in his office. “But after three days they started making rules.”
Kirkuky had fought alongside American Marines in Mosul in 2003 with the peshmerga special forces, and it upset him to see these areas under threat again. He felt the vice around Kirkuk, but suffocation was preferable to combat. Kirkuk is a valuable area and, in the face of extremists and their local supporters, the peshmerga security might not last. Whatever solidarity the people feel now could crumble during war. They might have to leave town altogether. Kirkuky leaned forward in his leather armchair and pushed his palms upward to the ceiling. “That’s the story of the people in Kirkuk,” he said.
Reporting for this article was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.