Why the Arab Spring Passed By Contested Kirkuk

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 2

Kurdish peshmerga troops

Kirkuk’s Sunni Arab parties are not happy over the recent decisions of the Iraqi PM Nuri al-Maliki and the Iraqi cabinet to turn the U.S. military base at Kirkuk into a civilian airport, to approve 1,400 new police officers requested by the Kurdish head of Kirkuk police, and the cancellation of agricultural contracts that were granted to Sunni Arabs by the Ba’ath regime to increase the number of Arabs in the province (Kirkuk Now, January 4; AKnews [Kurdistan News Agency], January 17; Sumaria News, January 24). They also expressed dissatisfaction over the continued Kurdish security dominance of Kirkuk, the on-going arrests of prominent Sunni Arabs by security forces from Baghdad and the assassination of Sunni Arabs in Kirkuk. [1]

Members of the Sunni Arab-dominated “Sahwa” militias in the Kirkuk region of northern Iraq have also been under steady attack this month in the ethnically divided district where Kurds and Arabs struggle for control. A Sahwa commander was killed and his three guards injured during a January 23 attack on the commander’s vehicle, a bomb exploded in front of the house of two brothers who are Sahwa members on January 20 while another Sahwa member was shot dead by unknown gunmen on January 7 (Aswat al-Iraq, January 23; January 20; January 7).  Despite the pressure being applied to the Sunni Arab population of Kirkuk, the community’s political leaders and movements have failed to mobilize Kirkuk’s Arabs against the desire of many Kurds to bring the oil-rich district under full Kurdish control.

There were expectations a year ago that the Arab population of Kirkuk would engage in a Tunisia-like uprising or engage in mass protests against Kurdish control of the province in response to calls from the Arab Political Council (APC) in Kirkuk (Sumaria TV, January 21, 2011). Headed by politicians from the Jibour and Obeidi tribes, the APC is an Arab nationalist council uniting various Arab politicians in Kirkuk that supported the secular Iraqiya list during the 2010 elections.  

Despite expectations, there have been few examples of political mobilization on the part of Kirkuk’s Arab community. An APC effort last year to make February 25 a “day of wrath” by calling for massive protests by Arab demonstrators was averted by the deployment of Kurdish troops outside Kirkuk and the enforcement of a curfew by the Kurdish-controlled police within the city (See Terrorism Monitor, April 1, 2011). APC calls for protests and sit-ins last summer brought few Arabs into the streets and failed to create any significant unrest (Rudaw.net, August 26 2011). Some of the February 25 protests in Arab-dominated districts of Kirkuk like Hawija and Rashaad actually called for the removal of Arab politicians and the elimination of corruption. As a result Arab politicians called the Arab youth of Kirkuk “disloyal” and claimed they were influenced by Kurds [1].

In fact, the APC does not have the financial resources, organizational capacity or popular support for their efforts to initiate a Tunisian-style uprising or even mass protests against the Kurdish-controlled authorities in Kirkuk. Shaykh Abd al-Rahman al-Assi, head of the APC, has threatened to conduct sit-ins and protests against the Kurdish security forces several times, but in reality he is unable to follow up on such threats.

Election results and surveys from 2005 to 2011 show consistently that the majority of Kirkuk’s Arabs oppose the ambition of Kurdish nationalists to annex the province to the Kurdistan Region through Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, which calls for normalization of Kirkuk’s disputed status through an overdue census and referendum (see Terrorism Focus, February 25, 2009). Such data also confirms widespread support for some of the claims of popular support made by Arab nationalist politicians in Kirkuk. [2] However, data collected from the police and local press show that between 2004 and 2011 there were only around 30 demonstrations against Kurdish claims to Kirkuk. The majority of the demonstrations carried out in Kirkuk by Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen focused on a lack of services, jobs and electricity [3].

Surveys and interviews show there is widespread frustration in Kirkuk and the rest of Iraq regarding the effectiveness of the nation’s politicians [4]. Iraqis see their politicians as corrupt, ineffective and more involved with their own personal squabbles than with running the country (AKnews, July 18, 2011). One survey shows that 81% of Kirkuk’s population support calls for more democracy and government responsiveness in both their own province and the rest of the Arab world [5].

The results show that there is a great gap between the Arab politicians’ focus on ethnic-related demands and the daily needs of the population of Kirkuk. Therefore, it was not surprising that the APC withdrew their support for the February 25 demonstrations days after they found out the protesters would call for the removal of Arab politicians.

The Arab nationalists’ lack of organizational skills and resources in is in stark contrast to Kirkuk’s more experienced, more organized and better funded Kurdish political parties. These groups dominate most of the official institutions and maintain their own telecommunication networks, satellite channels, newspapers and a large number of NGOS in Kirkuk. The Kurdish parties have even succeeded in running NGOs and projecting their security influence in Arab-dominated districts of Kirkuk, while the APC lack television stations and newspapers while failing to operate a single NGO.

Kirkuk’s Sunni Arabs did not have any political organizations prior to 2003, unlike the Kurds, who have controlled the autonomous Kurdistan Region since 1991. As a result the Sunnis are disorganized and depend largely on the political participation of various tribes and former military officers. The dependence of the dis-unified Sunni politicians on tribes also leads to divisions and disaffection over tribal nepotism. Although Arab politicians control Sahwa (Awakening) militias and city councils outside of the city, they do not have a major influence within the provincial council of Kirkuk or the city itself.

Furthermore, the APC lacks support from independent centers of power within Iraq on a local, regional and national level. Kurdish political groups in Kirkuk have support from the KRG and dominate the city’s political and security structure, including the police and the local branch of the Asayish, the KRG security agency.  The APC’s main allies in the Iraqiya list failed to form the government and do not hold any influential posts at present as the List is boycotting the Iraqi parliament. 
In August 2011, APC politicians visited prominent Sunni politicians Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi and Deputy PM Salih al-Mutlaq to voice their demands (Rudaw.net, August 26, 2011). Now, however, Hashimi is wanted on terrorism charges and has taken refuge in Kurdistan region, while Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki wants to replace al-Mutlaq for calling him a “dictator” (al-Jazeera, December 28, 2011; Niqash.org, January 12).

Despite the fact that Kurdish political parties are stronger in Kirkuk than Arab nationalist parties, this does not change the fact that the  Kurds lack support from Baghdad, neighboring countries and the West for annexing Kirkuk to the Kurdistan region. This means that the Kurdish parties will remain in de facto control of Kirkuk in the future and that Arab politicians in Kirkuk will be unable to challenge that control without support from Baghdad and effective political mobilization.

Wladimir van Wilgenburg studied Journalism and New Media at Leiden University and is studying international relations at the University of Utrecht. Van Wilgenburg writes freelance articles on the Middle East and is an editor at the Kurdish newspaper Rudaw, based in Erbil, northern Iraq.


1. Wladimir van Wilgenburg, "Failed (or Aborted) Arab Spring in Iraq: A Study of the Political Mobilization of Sunni Arabs in Kirkuk," MA Thesis, Utrecht University, August 12, 2011.

2. Ibid

3. Ibid

4. Ibid

5. Survey of Northern Triangle Public Opinion April 13-18, 2011: https://www.iri.org/sites/default/files/2011%20June%2016%20IRI%20Releases%20Survey%20of%20Iraqi%20Public%20Opinion,%20April%2013-18,%202011.pdf