Two contrasting types of ethnic relations: the case of two cities of Kurdistan/Iraq

Is it inevitable that tensions between ethnic groups should degenerate into ethnic conflicts? The Kurdish/Iraqi case suggests that multi-faceted aspects come into play.

Dana Sofi
8 March 2012

What makes the difference between multi-ethnic environments that are characterized by peaceful coexistence and mutual understanding, and others prone to conflict and violence? This article aims at understanding how ethnic groups coexist in two different environments in the same country – in this case, Iraqi Kurdistan. Why do ethnic or interpersonal relationships vary in different regions? What are the environment-specific factors which make the difference? Based on extensive fieldwork, 2006 - 2011, I tried to trace the mechanisms and processes that determine consensus and conflict in the two multi-ethnic Kurdish/Iraqi cities, Erbil and Kirkuk.

There is an interesting contrast between Erbil and Kirkuk. Both are ethnically heterogeneous big cities in Kurdistan with different proportions of various groups, and both cities are at the centre of their respective provinces. There are four main ethnic groups in Kirkuk: Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens and Christians (Chaldeans and Assyrians). In Erbil, apart from Arabs all other ethnic groups are present. In both cities political institutions include a regional parliament or provincial council that takes care of matters relating to the province. They were created after the first election process in December 2004 in Iraq, eighteen months after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Public authorities in Erbil are relatively successful compared with those of Kirkuk, although these also fall short compared to a well-functioning democratic country. Erbil shows relative political stability and consensus among different ethnic groups. Kirkuk, by contrast, is plagued by conflict and non-cooperation between different ethnic groups and also by political instability.

It is quite a puzzle to work out how and why the same ethnic groups - Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens and Christians - develop different relationships in different regions or cities in the same country. It turns out that various groups develop different inclusion and exclusion strategies and place different demands on each other depending on a wide range of environment-specific factors inclduing the historical experiences each group has of the other, and how effective the authorities are, as well as the patterns of ethnic composition, territorial distribution and inter-ethnic relations found in each city. One factor may be predominant, but how factors interact with one another and under which circumstances is of great importance. What follows are four inter-ethnic patterns that will help us understand the contrasting fates of Erbil and Kirkuk.

1. Partisan histories

The ethnically motivated massacre in 1959 in Kirkuk which killed many Turkmens is such a prominent historical memory that it still has a strong political significance for them. Its topicality today is kept alive by propaganda, among other political processes. The same is true for the Kurds for the al-Anfal Campaign, also known as Operation Anfal, particularly in Kirkuk. This genocidal campaign against the Kurdish people (and many other ethnic groups) in Northern Iraq, led by Saddam Hussein and his cousin al-Majid, took place during the final stages of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988. Thousands of Kurdish villages were destroyed and more than 100.000 Kurdish civilians were killed, according to UN documents. Al-Anfal has today become part of the Kurdish political identity, through various annual ceremonies. Political, journalistic, and educational discourses contribute to shaping people's faiths and identities by referring to specific events in which one’s own group appears as a victim unfairly treated by other groups. This enduring self-victimization hinders reconciliation efforts. The effects of the Baath Party’s brutal politics are much more tangible in Kirkuk than in Erbil, where it is difficult to get rid of its legacy. For example, significant ethno-demographic changes in Kirkuk, such as the creation of large Arab settlements in the 1980s and 1990s, and the return of Kurds expelled after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, have shifted the balance of power between different ethnic groups and created an uncertain political map. Both cities also differ regarding governance structures and management practices. The dictatorship disappeared in Erbil in 1991 and was followed by self-government, while it lasted for Kirkuk until 2003 and was replaced by an indeterminate status. Erbil’s longer history of self-rule began after the1991 popular uprising or Intifada against the Baath regime after the Kuwait war, with a reconstruction marked by apparent freedom and the construction of seemingly democratic institutions, despite internal conflicts. In Kirkuk, the new political map was set after the fall of Saddam Hussein`s regime in 2003, with the phenomenon of "terrorism" as an integral part of its baggage. In Erbil, in contrast, the fall of Saddam not only meant the disappearance of a threat but acted also a stabilizing factor.

2. Efficient authorities

Institutional differences between Kirkuk and Erbil relate to how functional authorities are with regards to security. In Erbil, the authorities were able to preserve the city's security and stability, despite inefficiencies and corruption in some agencies. While terrorist actions are rare in Erbil, they are common in Kirkuk. Trust of the legal system is very weak in Kirkuk because of its lack of independence: authorities and administrations are much more corrupt and inefficient. The fact that Kirkuk’s administrations are divided not only among different ethnic groups, but also between Kurdish parties and the central authority in Baghdad, creates a situation of both horizontal and vertical institutional disintegration. For example, some teachers and police officers obey the central government in Baghdad while some others bow to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Poor security conditions and a general climate of suspicion in Kirkuk have led to various defensive mobilizations of opinion, each group trying to recruit and equip its members. “We don’t trust Arabs”, a Kurdish politician told me. Each insecure group therefore attempts to strengthen its own position through an ethnic colonization of political and administrative institutions: Kurds control police forces, Arabs, the judiciary, and Turkmens, education. Opportunities for mutual understanding are reduced to a minimum as nationalist discourses become stronger. Unlike in Erbil, institutional incapacity in Kirkuk created a situation of mistrust and insecurity, and this security dilemma deepened conflicts.

3. The spatial components of power games

Regarding the ethnic composition and territorial distribution of the groups, there are significant differences between both cities with regards to the number of groups, their respective sizes and territorial bases. Three equal-sized groups (Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens) and a smaller one (Christians) in Kirkuk are involved in the game as opposed to a large group (Kurds) and two smaller ones (Turkmens and Christians) in Erbil. Neither 'native Arabs' nor 'migrant Arabs' are present in Erbil. There are also several cultural and religious sub-groups in Kirkuk, which complicate integration. But what makes the situation more sensitive in Kirkuk is the possibility of a struggle over the balance of power between ethnic groups. If in a multi-ethnic environment there are more than two approximately equal groups, with the possibility for one or more groups holding the balance of power, interethnic relations tend to become confrontational if the disagreement revolves around intractable political disputes between groups. The matter of the status of Kirkuk, a city rich in oil, and whether it should belong to the region of Kurdistan or to the central government in Baghdad, manifests itself as a conflict between and within the ethnic groups. The struggle over the balance of power is more uncertain for the parties as there are more than two groups, conflict issues and possible coalitions between groups. In Erbil, there are more than two groups, but no significant inter-ethnic conflict issues or the possibility for effective coalitions. Erbil’s ethnic composition, with a large dominant majority group and two other small ones prevents any serious threat to the balance of power.

The size of the groups combined with their territorial bases affect ethno-political interactions. Relationships between relatively equal groups with proportionate territorial bases tend to be conflict-oriented because all groups feel strong and demand more, as in Kirkuk. But if smaller groups do not have any significant territorial base but are integrated into the majority group, it is likely that they will find various forms of cooperation, since they will not be perceived as a problem or a threat by the majority group, as in Erbil. Inter-ethnic conflicts require that all parties may be able to put pressure on each other and to maintain the balance of power, as is the case for Kirkuk where there is a relatively symmetrical power relationship between the various parties. 

Another difference between both cities is the prevalence of internal splits and the emergence of sub-groups. The relationship between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) - two large and ruling political parties - is not as clear and regulated in Kirkuk as in Erbil, which renders the situation very uncertain and therefore likely to degenerate into conflict. 

4. Social contacts

The patterns of social relations differ in the two cities in the form of limitations to and possibilities for inter-ethnic bridge-building contacts. Organizational life and the job market are more or less heterogeneous in both cities, thereby allowing for the emergence of inter-ethnic social capital. But major differences can be observed which relate to residential segregation and ethnic distribution. Unlike Erbil, Kirkuk is a divided city, Arab in the south and Kurdish in the north. Geographic segregation in Kirkuk has been the basis for other forms of segregation. Residential segregation is in itself a condition for negative dichotomization, especially when there are intractable ethnically-defined issues between segregated groups. In divided ethnic environments, elites mobilize their own communities more easily and therefore the creation of threats is simplified: for example if Kurds consider Arabs to be 'terrorists'. Residential segregation with ethnically defined mosques, schools and local centres reduces the expected positive effects of the heterogeneity of organizations and authorities, especially when uncertainty and competing nationalistic discourses prevail. In ethnically integrated environments such as Erbil, interethnic communication channels can multiply and thereby counteract the negative effects of prejudice and of elite manipulation, weakening their attempt at redefining the in-group by denigrating the out-groups.

Conflict or consensus?

The four environment-specific factors presented above show that ethnic groups do not have static boundaries and that their hostility to each other takes specific forms that we can readily distinguish. Conflict is not somehow confined to an immanent relationship pattern between ethnic groups. The common view that groups separated by cultural differences have an inherent potential for conflict, is contradicted by the facts. This reminds us not to reify cultural groups. If we see cultural groups as an unchanging core, an obvious consequence of this notion is that boundaries between ethnic groups cannot be overcome. Ethnic groups may then also be seen as by definition threatening each other's security and survival. Conflict comes to be seen as a natural element in ethnic relations, regardless of their ethnic environment and situation. Ancient ethnic hatred or fear embedded in cultural differences are turned to for explanations of ethnic conflicts, instead of seeing ethnic hatred as the product of an ethnicization or polarization process which is the result of the manipulation of ethnic symbols by elites. The static notion of ethnicity does not account for the fact that ethnic groups can undergo different stages of group-formation – an element which affects not only the particular disputes within conflicts but also the claims made by groups and their behaviour towards each other.

How these factors interact is crucial. If the interaction leads to a high degree of complexity that makes a given ethnicity appear strong in terms of ethnic competition, the likelihood of ethnic conflict is great. The reason is that in such complex multi-ethnic systems, boundaries will be sharply defined because group elites will actively manipulate ethnic-specific symbols and use mobilization to create group interest and group behaviour. The source of inter-ethnic conflict is therefore not an originary hatred embedded in cultural difference, but rather lies in the processes and mechanisms by which groups are upgraded or downgraded, so that group differences become ethno-political power factors and group definitions crystallize. Crystallized ethnic groups feel stronger, and accordingly impose higher demands on each other, which in turn can easily spawn new conflicts.

In conclusion, the question of how to overcome inter-ethnic conflicts and to create inter-ethnic consensus is also context-bound. Each ethnic environment has its own negative and positive conditions for inter-ethnic relations. What matters is to counteract negative and to promote positive factors. But for such a human project, there must of course be at least a display of political will and consensus. Mutual respect is a necessary condition for inter-ethnic relations. Inter-ethnic communication channels must be improved to create a precondition for tolerance and trust. This may involve widening the integration process and the creation of inter-ethnic social capital under the right circumstances, for instance through counteracting residential segregation.

Another aspect of mutual recognition is the right to representation and participation at various levels. For each group to be able to feel safe and dignified and to influence its future, it must also be involved in the power apparatus and the country's affairs. Everyone needs to belong to be able to identify with their city or their country, not least to create common goals and interests that combat exclusion at both political and social levels. People need to feel protected and confident in their environment to be ready for cooperation.

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