Kirkuk has a long history of trouble. A town of almost one million people in a province that jabs into the heart of the Iraqi Kurdish territory, it was once a staging area for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s campaigns against the Kurds. That fight was briefly joined by one Kurdish party, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), in its bitter battle with the other, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). And before Saddam came to power, Kirkuk’s oil refineries were attacked by Kurdish insurgents.
No wonder, then, that the Kurdish former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani famously described the apparently doomed city as “our Jerusalem”—a town claimed by many. And these days, the number of claimants has expanded. There’s still the KDP and PUK, which both field the peshmerga, but now there are also the Shia Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) and holdouts from the so-called Islamic State (also known as ISIS).
Yet through it all, Kirkuk has been surprisingly resilient.