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Kirkuk: Caged bird or phoenix?

Kirkuk is a city full of oil, danger and birds. Every weekend, throngs of locals crowd into the city’s central market to buy and sell birds.

Last modified: 27 Feb 2010 16:44
Photos by Josh Rushing

Kirkuk is a city full of oil, danger and birds. Every weekend, throngs of locals crowd into the city’s central market to buy and sell birds.

It’s a fascinating thing to witness, birds of all feathers - turkeys, parakeets, parrots - selling for as much as a $100. Among Iraqis and their flying prizes, I recall in literature that birds often represent the human desire to escape gravity, or maybe in the case of Kirkuk, the desire to escape the gravity of one’s situation.

There’s a precarious struggle between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the central government in Baghdad over Kirkuk and its oil.

As the KRG manoeuvres for its eventual bid for independence, the oil of Kirkuk, which could represent up to one quarter of Iraq’s reservoirs, could provide an essential natural resource. Of course, Baghdad - which has struggled to secure Kirkuk for the central government of Iraq since Saddam began his brutal policy of Arabisation - won’t part with its black gold without a fight.

If the US leaves Iraq before Kirkuk’s status is settled, a brewing civil war may ignite.

As one Sunni Kirkuki tells me, “Within an hour there will be a fight and the Kurds will be expelled.” A man I meet in the marketplace prays for a miracle, “If there is no oil, things will get better here. I just have one wish that God will finish up the oil here.” Another man in the bird market echoes his sentiment, “Oil has been a curse in this city, for Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen. This place is in misery because of oil.”

But the oil, which Herodotus noted nearly three millennia ago, isn’t drying up any time soon. Hundreds of thousands of barrels a day are pumped from beneath the feet of locals, an irony not lost on the Kirkukis, as one complains to me, “The Iraqi government sells a barrel of crude oil for $77. But here in Kirkuk which is rich in oil, we pay around $125 dollars for a barrel of kerosene.”

In a city where electricity flows only 20 percent of the time and crude takes up the slack for cooking and heating, people here pay a premium for the valuable commodity many argue is their birthright.

As I lie photographing Baba Gurgur, a fiery pit said to be the place King Nebuchadnezzar ordered the prophet Daniel thrown into the flames, its ever-present noxious gasses turn my stomach.

My mind wanders back to the market vendors peddling hawks and pigeons and it occurs to me that doves seem absent.

I think of the mix of people - Arab, Turkman, Kurd - and wonder if this beautiful, mysterious place, with a culture as ancient and richer than its natural resources, will end up more like the caged bird with bruised wing and scars of past, or like a phoenix rising from the black smoke of Kirkuk’s oil fields and car bombs, persisting yet again through the ebb and flow of another passing civilization.

Watch the Fault Lines episode ON THE BRINK: Iraq, Kurdistan and the Battle for Kirkuk.