Kirkuk: A divided city with a unique opportunity

There are, of course, rarely any “silver bullets” to intractable political problems, and this is especially true in the complex world of Iraqi politics, where ethnicity, religion, alliances, history, and power all play keys roles in shaping the political scene. But few issues have proven to be as divisive as the status of the ancient city of Kirkuk.

I first visited Kirkuk this previous summer while working in the Kurdistan Region of northern Iraq. Before I stepped foot in the city, I made sure to read up on every book, report, and account of the city as I could get a hold of, but as I suspected, nothing could have prepared me to experience how the conflict plays out “on the ground.” Like all things Iraq, complexity is the foundation of every day life in Kirkuk. In some ways it was easy to forget about the history of conflict with the city. The city center, bustling and full of activity, was a place where Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen interacted without the weighted divisiveness of politics. Shopkeepers solicited my Kurdish guide, wanting his money more than his support for nationalistic causes.

Yet the dangers persisted and reminders of the fissures that remain a fundamental fact of life for the reality of many Kirkukis were also evident. In the two hours after my departure, the bombing of a café, targeting a visiting Kurdish politician, ripped apart any complacent sense of cooperation that had naively developed during my short stay.

It is no surprise that Kirkuk is a divided city. Historically and still today, it has remained marred by conflict from the fragile relations between its ethnic communities, including Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen, who all lay claim to land and political control of the city. I have learned that one thing the people of Kirkuk all hold true is that the conflict over the status of this ancient city remains one of the single most divisive issues between Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian communities.

But an often forgotten consequence of this tragic conflict is that it creates a unique opportunity. The magnitude of the conflict shows the value that making incremental progress on the sticking points can have in lessoning tensions across the board with the large scope of Iraq’s communities. Kirkuk is something all Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen talk about, whether they live a block from the city center or in Duhok or Basra. In short, it presents a center of gravity underlying a large amount of inter-communal tensions in Iraq, and is a critical piece in efforts to build inter-communal peace and understanding.

Of course, the political issue driving the conflict in Kirkuk goes beyond the scope of many field projects aimed at empowering youth and building understanding. But it’s exactly these kinds of small-scale, high-impact projects that make tangible progress towards shifting the every day realities of the conflict as it plays out in people’s lives.

At EPIC, this understanding lies at the heart of our approach in working with Iraqi youth of all backgrounds to empower them to seize the opportunity to achieve a prosperous future. With projects like PHOTOVOICE IRAQ and initiatives in outdoor education and grassroots advocacy, we hope to advance the progress of cities like Kirkuk for a better Iraq and stronger and deeper relationship between the United States and the Iraqi people.

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