Playing tourists in one of the world’s most dangerous cities is not how we imagined we’d end up spending Tuesday, but there we were atop Kirkuk’s ancient citadel admiring – and mourning – the crumbling ruins of the five mosques that once occupied the plateau overlooking the contested city.”See, look,” says Akam Omar Osman, pointing to the north. “You see how in Kurdish areas we pick up the trash, we have services. And then how in the south,” he says, swinging around, “you have nothing.” Osman is the translator provided by the Peshmerga Kurdish forces who brought us here.
The north does look to be relatively bustling, while storm clouds gather over the quieter southern areas of the city, filled with banks of trash. This pivotal oil city, home to Iraq‘s main pipeline and numerous refineries, is part of the disputed territories between Iraqi Kurdistan and the Iraqi central government. And Kirkuk is now on the frontlines of a two-week old military stand-off. After a December shootout between Iraqi police and Peshmerga in another disputed city, Tuz Khormato, left one dead and several injured, both the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army have ringed Kirkuk.
But the tensions are far greater than just a singe firefight. Baghdad recently created a new command overseeing security forces in the disputed areas, angering the country’s ethnic Kurds. The Kurds were further incensed when Lt. Gen. Abdul-Amir al- Zaidi, who has been linked to Saddam Hussein‘s genocide of hundreds of thousands of Kurds in 1988′s Anfal campaign, was placed in charge of the Iraqi forces at their doorstep.
Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki was infuriated when Kurdistan began inking its own oil contracts – including some in disputed areas — with Exxon, France’s Total, Russia’s Gazprom and Chervron. Not to mention a deal under way to build a pipeline between Turkey and Kurdistan, allowing the Kurds a route that did not have to cross the rest of Iraq to export the 45 million barrels believed to be beneath Kurdish lands. Maliki argues that the regional government doesn’t have the authority to sign such contracts.
On Tuesday morning in Erbil, Kurdistan’s capital, we met with the Minister for Peshmerga Sheikh Jafar Mustafa, before heading down to see what we thought were the front lines. “It is illegal for Baghdad to use the Iraqi Army to settle provincial disputes,” Jafar says. “They make the same words — use the same words — as Saddam.”
Read More: Time