The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

An ethnic powder keg inflamed by the war in Iraq

May 26, 2003

Kirkuk has recently become the center of ethnic rivalries between, on the one hand, Kurds who were kicked out of the city by the Saddam Hussein regime, in the framework of a policy of "Arabization" which began in the 1980s, and on the other hand, the Arab populations of the city and its surroundings, some of whom were "implanted" by the dictatorship to replace the expelled Kurds.

After the end of the war, thousands of Kurdish families who used to live in Kirkuk left the northern refugee camps where they lived, returning to their city of origin. Were they pushed by nationalist militias, in order to grab control of the city by their presence, or by illusions created by Bush with his promises to the Kurds, or simply by their material situation, which was worsened by the war? Undoubtedly all these factors played a role. Whatever it was, the majority found their old homes occupied by Arab families or even destroyed.

Clashes broke out between Kurds and Arabs. Between May 16 and 18, these clashes took the form of armed combat in several neighborhoods of Kirkuk, which caused five deaths and wounded 40, while neighboring villages inhabited by Arabs were burnt.

The case of Kirkuk – a city in which other minorities also have demands, like the Turkmens – illustrates how the imperialist occupation opens the way for ethnic rivalries, fed by the ambitions of reactionary forces. There is a growing danger that the different ethnic groups will be thrown against each other in bloody and fratricidal struggle, a struggle which could end up even pitting the two principal Kurdish militias against each other. These militias, the Democratic Party of Kurdistan (DPK) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), act more like traditional Kurdish clans than nationalist parties.

Since the beginning of the 1990s, Iraqi Kurdistan has benefitted from a relative autonomy in relation to Baghdad. The DPK and the PUK cut out zones they each controlled after the first Gulf War. Thanks in part to the Iraqi oil revenues that they received from the U.N. and fees they got for permitting the illegal transit of oil between Iraq and Turkey, the region enjoyed a very relative prosperity.

Paradoxically, the fall of Baghdad ended this. Payments from the U.N. have dried up (as they have for the rest of Iraq), as have illegal oil sales. As a result, the population has mostly found themselves without financial resources or material aid since March. Since the end of the war, this has led, for example, to demonstrations against the non-payment of wages by the DPK in Erbil, the capital of the occupied zone.

Today, the militias of the DPK and PUK encircle Kirkuk, the oil capital of northern Iraq, and undoubtedly push the Kurdish population to move back into the city.

A century ago the interests of the rival great powers tore the Kurds apart and left them in four countries – Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria – where they were reduced to the status of an oppressed minority. Today, their hopes for autonomy are being played on in order to impose order over the region – an order which may very well be brought about through increasing ethnic violence. The U.S. leaders don't care any more about the condition of the Kurdish people than it did that of the Arabs of Kurdistan. Both peoples risk paying a very high price for this today.