Kirkuk’s Triangular Nightmare: Kurds vs. Turkmen vs. Arabs

Abandoned in a limbo country with no government and no authority except the car bomb, 460 Kurdish families are living in a sports stadium in the ragged outskirts of Kirkuk. They have been there for more than a year and have fashioned hovel apartments out of homemade mud, brick, and plaster under the eaves of the sloping stadium bowl or inside what were once the toilets, the players’ showers, and the balcony boxes. Strung-up electricity wires feed low-wattage yellow light bulbs. There is no water: It comes in by tanker. Each family digs its own septic tank; still the sewage runs in foul, fecal streams. Washing hangs in lines of colored rags; small kerosene stoves burn kettles of tea; wads of bedding are piled in muddy corners. The Kurds are practiced refugees, Arabized out of Kirkuk, Anfaled out of their villages in Kurdistan, fled into the mountains in ‘91.

In the stadium, they have come full circle in their displaced irony: Most are originally from Kirkuk but left after the intifada of ‘91 or were expelled by Saddam’s Security, houses confiscated as the regime tried to redistribute the population balance in Kirkuk to favor Arabs. The Kurds in the stadium are the overflowing edge of a political problem. Kurds are moving back into Kirkuk, hoping to reclaim their lost homes and jobs and political place in the city—ambitious enough, in fact, to claim Kirkuk as the oil-flowing jewel in the constitutional crown of a federal Kurdistan. The Arabs and the Turkmen don’t like it.

These are difficult and unresolved times, and Kirkuk is just part of the multifaceted sectarian matrix that is Iraq. “The situation …” says Abdul Qader, shrugging. He is a poor man in his 40s, sitting behind one of the stadium’s goal posts in his “front yard” counting out his family’s ration cards. But the situation for these Kurds has been terrible for decades. Well-practiced at being refugees, well-practiced too at complaining to journalists: “There is no electricity,” although there are plenty of TV aerials; “Everyone here is unemployed,” except I can see several orange-and-white taxis parked about; “The political parties and the NGOs and the journalists just come here and no one does anything,” except the Red Cross comes by with a mobile clinic every so often.

“We want a place to live,” says Abdul Qader. He ekes out a living selling kerosene from a handcart, the same job he had before he was forced out of Kirkuk in 1995. He has nine children and wants a new wife. His wife comes out of their tramped-earth room when she hears him say this. She shakes her head and laughs at his impossible dream.

The semi-official representative of the stadium Kurds came and introduced himself and sat down in his Kurdish baggy pantaloons and said that the Governing Council and the British and the Americans should give displaced Kirkukis homes. “We feel abandoned here. We are refugees from Kirkuk, but it is like we are strangers here now, we are treated as strangers. It is like a no man’s land.”

The stadium is full of grubby kids—hundreds of kids—the Kurds have children by the dozen. A boy with a flash new bicycle; a boy playing with a dead bird; a 10-year-old savant scratching a game in the concrete with a rock, smiling and hugging his toes; a boy beating a mule hitched to a cart as if he were punishing it for not being a motor car. Three small baby boys are laid out carefully in the interior gloom of what was once a bathroom, crying softly after their morning circumcision. Their parents had put up posters of Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and of President Bush “The Peacemaker,” because despite all the betrayals, the Kurds still regard the Americans as their sponsors and their saviors. See, I commented tongue-in-cheek to my translator, there is a corner of Iraq that will be forever pro-American!

The running track is pockmarked, and the soccer field is dirt and scrubby dandelions. “You are Arabs! Arabs go out of here!” a couple of boys perched in the bleachers shouted at my Baghdad driver.

I asked Abdul Qader what he understood by democracy.

“Democracy?” he said, a poor man with hope of being richer but without the wit to enrich himself. “Democracy is something good. Democracy is good when it is applied to people’s lives. Like in Europe it is applied to every aspect of daily life in living standards. Here, in Iraq, it is just a word.”


The old Turkmen men sat in their teahouse, next to the Turkmen Cultural Center that distributes charity and money donated from Turkey to needy Turkmen families in Kirkuk. There is an Iraqi flag and a Turkmen blue crescent flying from the roof. Inside are posters and pamphlets detailing Turkmen martyrs from the 1958 massacres in Kirkuk. This is an old and misremembered rivalry. For Kurds, Kirkuk is Kurdish. For Turkmen, it is a town that is 80 percent Turkmen, according to the 1977 census.

“Yes, the Kurds are coming back now,” said the old Turkmen men, “and it’s true that the regime forced some of them out. But more are coming now than were ever here before.”

“The way they behave, we know their intentions.”

“Oh yes, you know all the hijacking and the robberies and the kidnapping is being done by Kurds.”

And other inaccurate slights: “We are not allowed to fly the Turkman flag in the middle of the street, but the Kurdish flag is everywhere. Every Kurd, even the ones who sell stuff in the street, has a gun permit, but not us.”

“The Kurds fly their flags just to impose themselves on us.”

“The municipality, from the head down, is all Kurds.”

“They are trying to have control here, it’s clear. But they won’t be able to.”

“Yes, it’s a divided city.”

“The Kurds are building on empty government land. They are building on the old Jewish graveyard.”

“Now the Kurds are trying to talk, but the glass has fallen on the ground and broken, and you can’t fix it.”

“No, we won’t deal with them.”


In a low green concrete Sunni Arab mosque on Friday, the imam delivered a routine sermon. He talked about the friends of the prophet, peace be upon him, who God preferred, and those who did not stand with the prophet, who were the enemies of Islam. He told the story of one of the friends of the prophet, who left his family to join the prophet and spread the message of God, and how he was captured by sinners and before he was killed, asked only to be able to say his final prayers that he might die a Muslim. The imam stretched the stories into the present and said that we should also follow the right path, and if we did not, we would be considered enemies, because God brought religion down to us in order for man to obey it. “Let the circle of evil surround those who work against Islam.”

I sat in the car outside the mosque listening on the loudspeaker. I am a woman, and I was not allowed inside. A policeman came up to ask us what we were doing there. These are suspicious times. But three boys came out of the house opposite with a pitcher of water and a glass, for our refreshment. I had felt like the sermon was a separation of us and them, but the glass of water on a hot afternoon was somehow a reminder of hospitality—even, at a stretch, of universal humanity: I was thirsty and I drank.

It’s a sectarian thing: Kirkuk is divided. Around the corner from the Turkman cafe was an old caravanserai where an Arab professor was selling religious books and foretelling a volcanic eruption in Kirkuk: “The Americans have been pampering the Kurds the way they pamper the Israelis.” And five minutes’ walk through the maze of souk streets under the old citadel, past blacksmiths banging and hot bakeries, is a corner with a Kurdish teahouse next to a stall selling guns and ammunition, in front of a building where a car bomb went off a week ago and killed five people. I asked the Kurds, and I asked the Turkmen, and I asked some Arabs who had set off the bombs. They said they didn’t know. They shrugged; what can you do about these things?