As the sun lowers over Kirkuk, crowds of young Arabs and Turkmen take to the streets waving Iraqi flags, dancing and honking car horns in celebration after central government forces retook the disputed, ethnically mixed northern city from Kurdish control this week. “Iraq is one again,” shouts an elderly man in a long white robe. “Everyone will soon accept this.” A few blocks away, where Kurdish flags still fly, young men at the only café puff water pipes and talk of revenge. They cannot accept the humiliating loss of a city they believed would be the heart of an independent Kurdish state their leaders promised to make a reality. “We’ll only bear one or two weeks of this — after that, if our leaders don’t act, we’ll take this into our own hands,” says Haitham, 24, a phone salesman. He awoke to find his shop pocked with bullet holes a day earlier and has not gone back since. Just weeks earlier, northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government held an independence referendum, ignoring international objections and arguing the moment was right to jump-start secession talks with Baghdad. The Kurdistan Democratic party of Masoud Barzani, the Kurdish president, argued the Kurds had helped a US-led coalition push Isis back to a few remaining pockets in Iraq and Syria. Now, the ruling party argued, the regional shake-up gave Kurds room to achieve their dream of statehood. Instead, one of the west’s top regional allies is in danger of being ripped apart at the seams. Faultlines are deepening between Kurds and Arabs and Turkmen, between Kurdish factions, and between Kurdish leaders and their own people. Many Kurds are outraged at how quickly their forces withdrew from a string of disputed areas that the KRG’s peshmerga fighters battled to capture after Isis swept through northern Iraq in 2014.
Those areas included oil-rich Kirkuk, considered economically vital for a future Kurdish state. Mr Barzani’s decision to include Kirkuk in the referendum lit a fuse Baghdad used to justify advances this week that have deprived the KRG of most of the territorial gains it made in 2014. Along the highway linking Kirkuk and Erbil, the KRG’s capital, bulldozers put up dirt berms and peshmerga tanks and vehicles, in beige camouflage, are positioned on hilltops and in neighbouring fields. Outside Kirkuk, Iraqi forces have also put up a string of berms. The result is a sense of passing through front lines that did not exist days earlier. “We have to protect ourselves — what’s to stop them from coming further, even to Erbil?” said a peshmerga fighter at a checkpoint. He cites concerns about Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces, a Shia volunteer outfit that includes factions backed by Iran and viewed by Kurds as their main menace. “They want to burn our people’s homes and rape their wives and daughters,” the fighter said.
Such fears induced a hysteria that sparked a second exodus of thousands of people from Kirkuk, just days after people fled when Iraqi tanks rolled into the city on Monday. At one checkpoint, some families arrived on foot with roller suitcases, others had packed everything from mattresses to refrigerators on to truck beds, stopping only to take bags of food and water handed out by Kurdish charities on the road. The rumours are exaggerated — no one interviewed had seen or experienced any looting or aggression. But Kirkuk is on edge. Video on Wednesday showed Kurdish teenagers jumping on a federal police car and tearing off the Iraqi flag. Slogans of Iranian-backed PMF factions are scrawled in graffiti on Kirkuk government buildings and Kurdish party offices. The corner of the base of a peshmerga statue overlooking Kirkuk’s entrance has been hacked apart. Many fleeing Kirkuk could not bear the uncertainty. “What we hear comes from TV and phone calls, so I suspect Kurdish parties are fuelling rumours. At this point, I’m not sure what we’re running from — the PMF? A Kurdish counter-offensive?” said one woman, packed into a car with her family. “Whatever it is, I don’t feel safe any more.”
Kurds remaining in Kirkuk say only about a quarter of their population appears to be left in a city where they were once the majority. The flight of distressed people this week revived memories of the brutal campaigns against Kurds ordered by Saddam Hussein, the late Iraqi dictator. “I kept thinking of 1991 — Saddam’s forces made me and my neighbours leave our homes. We watched them bulldoze them,” said Emad, sitting outside his empty restaurant. An armoured vehicle belonging to Iraqi special forces screeches past and he gestures excitedly: “See that?” Most of all, Kurds are livid about what they see as betrayal by their leaders. In an apparent deal with Baghdad, which some Kurds suspect may have been brokered by Iran, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the second-largest Kurdish party, withdrew from the fronts in Kirkuk the night the army came. Shortly afterwards, Mr Barzani’s ruling KDP party retreated as well. At the Kirkuk café, Haitham says he is hiding his KDP card, fearing harassment, and Ary, his friend and a PUK member, worries about a Kurdish civil war. In the 1990s the KDP called in Saddam’s troops to defeat the PUK in Erbil. “We Kurds have a very black history. It seems we are only good at betraying ourselves, ” Ary says. “I should have known these parties weren’t thinking of independence — just their interests.” The independence push had briefly revived his flagging hopes for the region. But now, he plans to do what so many young Kurdish men have done before him — leave. “We don’t have a place here any more. It’s over for the Kurdish people — we’re lost,” he adds.