Kirkuk, 1918–1968: Oil and the Politics of Identity in an Iraqi City

Thesis Type:

PhD dissertation


In this dissertation, I use methodological approaches from studies of urbanism, oil modernity, nation building, and identity formation to analyze the relationships between urban change, oil, state integration, and the politicization of group identities in the multiethnic Iraqi city of Kirkuk from 1918 to 1968. I argue that, in early to mid-twentieth-century Kirkuk, the oil industry, Baghdad’s policies, and the British neocolonial presence interacted with local conditions to produce the crystallization of ethnic group identities within a nascent domain of local politics. I find that at the time of the formation of the Iraqi state in the early 1920s, group identities in Kirkuk were fluid and local politics did not align clearly with ethnicities or other self-identities. Instead, they were largely subsumed under relations between more powerful external entities. Kirkukis’ political loyalties were based on which entity best served their interests—or, as was often the case, were positioned against a side based on its perceived hostility to their concerns. These political dynamics began to shift with Kirkuk’s incorporation into Baghdad’s domain, the beginnings of the Iraq Petroleum Company’s exploration just northwest of urban Kirkuk, and the end of British mandate rule. The Iraqi central government’s integration efforts exacerbated fault lines between emergent Kurdish, Turkmen, and Arab ethnic communities at a time when the city’s population and its urban fabric were growing rapidly. The oil industry, which provided the livelihood for a substantial percentage of Kirkuk’s population, became the focus of Communist-led labor organization. Consequently, the Iraqi government, the British government, and the oil company attempted to counter Communist influence through urban development schemes. The combination of urban growth and the expansion of discursive activities stimulated the emergence of a distinct civic identity and an accompanying arena of local politics in which Kirkuk’s ethnic communities were deeply invested. After the destabilizing effects of the Iraqi revolution in 1958, a cycle of intercommunal violence began in Kirkuk along increasingly apparent ethnic lines. Escalating conflict between Baghdad and the Kurdish movement for control of Kirkuk after 1958 fueled these tensions further. The reverberations of the revolution’s aftermath are still evident today.

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