Letter From Kirkuk: How Oil Riches And Ethnic Divisions Threaten Fragile Peace In Iraq

In a village near Suleimaniya in Iraqi Kurdistan
In a village near Suleimaniya in Iraqi Kurdistan
Iraq: A Torn City By Birgit

KIRKUK – Fifty kilometers out of Kirkuk, an oil city in Northern Iraq, the main road from Baghdad is already lined with tanks, artillery, Humvees and patrolling soldiers. Life has returned to the military barracks and checkpoints from the Saddam Hussein era that locals had thought were left behind for good.

Tents have also been erected, and you can see officers walking around together pointing at the surrounding hills as if discussing a defense strategy. Nearly all vehicles bear an Iraqi flag – red, white and black with the Arabic words "Allah is Great" in green in the middle.

In the barracks there are also black flags and flags with the likeness of Shiite Imam Hussein on them. There is no doubt that this Iraqi army division, which is mainly made up of Shiites, is preparing for battle and is psyching itself up for it.

At city limits there’s a border beyond which one sees only policemen, from Kirkuk"s multi-ethnic "joint forces" that the Americans created before their final retreat from Iraq nearly a year ago.

Leaving Kirkuk and heading north in the direction of Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan, the picture changes again. There are tanks, artillery, Humvees and large numbers of soldiers here too – they aren’t flying the Iraqi flag but the Kurdish one with the bright yellow sun at its center. Also: the men are wearing peshmerga – Kurdish freedom fighter uniforms.

The fighting around Kirkuk is notching up. What the United States described as an unresolved conflict, warning of the possible outbreak of civil war, when they withdrew their troops is coming to a head. Here, it’s not about Sunnis and Shiites but Arabs and Kurds.

Right now, things are quiet. Three car bombs have gone off in the center of Kirkuk, and many streets are blocked. On the square in front of the Governor’s Palace where the town council also meets, more security forces are standing around than usual. Shopkeepers and restaurant owners are debating whether or not to close up or stay open.

"They’re trying to sow chaos so that afterwards they can claim they’re the ones who are trying to maintain order," somebody says by way of explaining the car bombs. The men who are gathered around agree that Arab terrorist groups are behind the accelerated series of attacks in Kirkuk because the devices are mostly placed in parts of the city inhabited by Kurds.

Since the "Arab army" moved just outside of the city, the terrorists have had an easier time getting through, says Omeed, the owner of the ice cream shop.

With about a million residents, Kirkuk is an unusual mix of ethnicities and religions. All Iraq’s peoples are represented here. Only Baghdad has such a mixed population.

But Kirkuk is also the city where most of the Turkmen in Iraq live. They make up about a third of the population. Arabs and Kurds supposedly each make up another third, but these figures are disputed – one of the reasons for local conflicts. The main issue dates back to October 14, 1927, when a huge geyser of oil spurted skyward out of Baba Gurgur just outside the city.

The curse of oil

"If only we didn’t have the oil, it’s become a curse," Omeed says. He has decided to close shop and accept his cousin’s invitation to dinner at his grand house, where a dozen Kirkuk businessmen have gathered.

The atmosphere is tense; the men are nervous. They have never been in a situation like this, says a distinguished older man named Audshi. He is the head of one of the richest Turkmen families in Kirkuk. "We are surrounded by two rival armies that could start fighting any minute now,” he says. Yes, Saddam’s attacks here in the 1980s were brutal: he forced Kurds to leave and moved Arabs in so that he could control the oil. But the enemy was only from Baghdad that time – this time it’s from Baghdad and Erbil, the capital of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan.

Not all the guests share Audshi’s view. At the table, as the discussion heats up over kebabs and kofta meatballs, the differences of opinion illustrate all too well the splits that cripple Kirkuk.

Nausad is a Kurd with a Turkmen wife who served for years in Saddam’s army – he now sides with Kurdish President Barzani who claims Kirkuk for Kurdistan.

Haider is a Shiite Arab has been dubbed "Maliki" by the others because he supports Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad who does not want the Kurds to take over ever more of Kirkuk and the so-called "conflict areas" surrounding it.

Mahmoud, a Sunni Arab whose mother is a Kurd, disagrees with both those positions: to his mind "the spats between Erbil and Baghdad are destroying us."

The men keep switching between Kurdish, Arabic and Turkmen – most of Kirkuk’s inhabitants speak the three languages, and some even speak four: the tiny Christian minority speaks Assyrian. When the group breaks up at 10 P.M., they have managed to come to a common position, however – it would be best for everyone if Kirkuk were to become an independent, autonomous city.

There is an article in the Iraqi Constitution that calls for a popular vote to take place by Nov. 2007 to determine what should happen in Kirkuk. But the referendum has yet to take place.

Meanwhile the conflict around Kirkuk has come to be about a lot more than the oil issue. "We do not agree with Arab politicians who want to create a Shiite state here based on the Iranian model," says Muayad al-Tayeb, the speaker of the Kurdish Alliance in the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad.

"We also don’t want a Sunni-Arab nation that is basically a one-party dictatorship, as it was in Saddam Hussein’s day." The Kurds want a democratic federal state: "That’s the underlying issue behind this conflict."

The head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Irak (UNAMI), Martin Kobler, also sees the Kurdish-Arab conflict worsening in Kirkuk and surrounding areas. "The political factions haven’t been talking to each other for a year," he told Die Welt. "The Kurds and the Arabs may live in one country but they don’t talk to each other enough."

There still are no oil and gas laws to regulate the sector, says Kobler, and most of the unexploited oil and gas fields are in the conflict area. "When the Kurds and Arabs reach agreement about divvying up the riches of the land, the political issues will be easier to deal with."

Kobler is counting on provincial elections that will take place next April to calm spirits in and around Kirkuk. The last elections weren’t held because the Arabs called for a boycott. But he believes that "a newly elected provincial council can create the necessary dynamism to deal with the problems" – normalization of relations between ethnic groups, a census, then a referendum.

Says Omeed about the Kobler’s optimistic view: “We still have a long way to go.” As a Turkmen he has a somewhat more realistic take on things. Even if the conflict were to wind down in his city, he sees no reconciliation between the Arabs and the Kurds on the horizon.

In Erbil, Kurdish President Barzani has already signed oil contracts independently of Baghdad, and improved relations with Turkey. He is also trying to get Syrian Kurds on board: "We’re getting a great deal closer to an independent Kurdish state," he says.

This morning’s there’s a downpour so severe the water streams through the streets of Kirkuk. Omeed’s ice cream shop is closed again.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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