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.