The oil-rich and ethnically diverse town of Kirkuk in northern Iraq has been contested territory for centuries.
Today, it is part of an area of land that Iraqi Kurds wish to absorb into their autonomous enclave in the north of the country.
But Baghdad has long refused — and such a move would also be opposed by the city’s Arab and Turkmen groups, which also have longstanding roots in the city.
However, the rapid advances made by extremist Sunni militants in northern Iraq over the past two weeks has changed the balance of power in Kirkuk and put it squarely in the hands of Kurdish forces.
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Not all of its residents are happy as a result.
Alongside the Kurds, Kirkuk has large Turkmen and Shiite Arab populations. All three ethnic groups have conflicting historic claims to the region.
The province also contains vast oil reserves, which have been fought and squabbled over since their discovery in the 1920s. The rights are currently shared between the Kurdish government and Baghdad.
The city’s disputed status led to carefully negotiated security arrangements.
The north and east were overseen by Peshmerga troops, while Iraqi armed forces took the south and west. Both Iraqi and Kurdish police operated within the city.
That has changed fast over the past two weeks.
When the Sunni militants, which are led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), suddenly swept across northern Iraq, the army was routed.
In positions around Kirkuk, many abandoned their posts without firing a shot.
Shift of Power Peshmerga Brig. Gen. Mohammed Rostam, who controls forces in the region told VICE News that the men in one Iraqi base fled before his forces could even reach them.
Brig. Gen. Rostam observing ISIS positions at a front line outpost south of Kirkuk. Photo by John Beck
“We were in contact with the commander there and we said we would support them and told them not to leave, but he said they couldn’t resist….The Iraqis couldn’t even hold for a few minutes…when they heard ISIS was coming, they left without resistance,” Rostam said.
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The militants, he said, took the base, seized the weapons inside and then burned it to the ground.
Troops fled from many other Iraqi army facilities too and were quickly replaced by peshmerga.
Peshmerga at a front line position south of Kirkuk. Photo by John Beck
On the roads south of Kirkuk, the Kurdistan flag — a yellow sun backed by horizontal green, white and red stripes — flutters over fortified positions, which still have Iraqi colors painted on their walls.
Peshmerga leaders say they had to move in order to defend the local population.
“The Iraqi forces collapsed suddenly, so we had no choice but to replace them in disputed areas as there were lots of Kurds that we needed to protect," Aso Almani, a senior Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) official told VICE News.
Peshmerga set up artillery in the hills south of Kirkuk after clashes with ISIS nearby. Photo by John Beck
There are still Kurdish forces deployed in areas outside Kirkuk and peshmerga are holding positions in and around non-Kurdish towns south of the city like Taza and Beshir, with heavy weaponry, artillery and armored vehicles.
The Iraqi army, busy trying to halt the southward militant advance does not look likely to return any time soon, so there are no plans, Almani says, for the peshmerga to withdraw.
The offensive has led some Kurds to think that a future for Kirkuk in Iraqi Kurdistan is the only possible one.
The Iraqi army’s abscondment shows that it is incapable of protecting the city.
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However, some in the Arab and Turkmen populations are concerned at the prospect of only Kurdish forces in the area.
Hassan Torhan, a Turkmen member of Kirkuk’s provisional council told VICE News that the city depended on Iraqi troops as a federal army that would represent all of its ethnic groups and that in its absence, a special security force should be created reflecting the city’s demographic makeup.
“This can be the best solution for the city and this is the only guarantee that one ethnic group won’t rule the city alone,” he said. “Kirkuk is a multi-ethnic city, so it needs to be protected by a national army not only Kurdish forces. We believe there should be power sharing between different ethnic groups in Kirkuk and it should be the same for the security as well.”
He is still worried about danger posed by Sunni militants on his doorstep, however, and thinks that the peshmerga forces may not be able to hold them off.
“ISIS is still posing threat to the city and they may attack at anytime, we are not sure if the existing forces now in the city are willing to protect it against terrorist attacks,” Torhan said.
A peshmerga fighter observes ISIS positions at a front line position south of Kirkuk. Photo by John Beck
The Kurds, however are seeking to assuage fears of a power grab and to reassure other groups that they are dedicated to protecting non-Kurds also.
“Of course we have no problem when the Iraqi army want to come back, we hope they will make us become stronger,” Almani said.
He met with VICE News after a tour of smaller local towns with mixed Turkmen, Arab and Kurdish population — which was meant to provide some reassurance to the area's local communities that they were there to protect the region.
The PUK would not, he said, look to seize Kirkuk, especially while it had such a dangerous foe so close.
“We had an ambition of a Kurdish state before, but not with a neighbor like these terrorists, like that, it’s not a good thing,” Almani said.
He added that he would even like to see action from the international community alongside the Iraqi army to dislodge ISIS.
Otherwise, he said, Iraqi Kurdistan would inevitably become a target too.
“They [ISIS] become stronger and stronger day after day… Of course, they are intent on doing it [attacking Kurdish territory] in the future, and they’d do it now if they could,” Almani said.
Brig. Gen. Rostam at a front line position close to ISIS forces. Photo by John Beck
Rostam shared the same sentiment from a front line position close to a line of ISIS-occupied Sunni villages.
The militant positions were easily visible with the naked eye and peshmerga say they come and go unhindered along the Tikrit to Sulaymaniyah road, often driving US-made hummers looted from the Iraqi army.
He said that the peshmerga troops were not pursuing a Kurdish only agenda and wanted to protect anyone in the surrounding area, particularly minority groups.
“We are not differentiating between Shiite, Sunni and Kurds, we are defending towns, but taking extra care of non-Muslim towns. We are more afraid for non-Muslims, if militants attack, they may kill them directly,” Rostam said.