Two decades since Iraq invasion, a resident of battle-scarred city finds refuge in art

The toppling of Saddam Hussein led to a wave of insecurity and violence, which hit Kirkuk hard

Iraqi artist Khaled Ridha, 70, paints in his studio in Kirkuk in the heart of disputed territory. Photo: Khazan Jangiz
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Khalid Ridha spends most of his time in his home studio getting lost in his favourite colours.

He says his art, which he describes as melancholy, has given him a sense of control over his life, even if only fleeting, two decades after a US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein and brought a fresh wave of turmoil to his home province of Kirkuk in northern Iraq.

Kirkuk had already suffered from decades of instability as a region disputed between Iraqi Arabs and Kurds, but Saddam Hussein’s iron grip kept a lid on the tension until his removal sparked an outpouring of demands for justice and revenge among rival communities.

Amid this tragic history, the canvas is a world Ridha can influence with his own brush, as opposed to the uncertain life that surrounds him.

“I get a very deep feeling, it’s like living in another world, when I am done painting. I just sit down for half an hour and enjoy looking at it, it keeps me away from many things: the problems of life, the problems of the country, of people, of Kurdistan. It’s a very good medicine,” he says.

Ridha had a talent for art from an early age and was always encouraged to pursue it by his schoolteachers. When he graduated from school, he applied to Baghdad’s Fine Arts Academy in 1975 and was accepted after taking practical exams.

But disappointment soon came as he was ordered by the Iraq Students’ Union to obtain a document confirming his membership of the Baath party.

Without it, Iraqis under the former regime were barred from many public sector jobs and higher education institutions, and could face scrutiny from the country’s notorious secret police services, who were widely condemned for torturing suspects.

“They told me, ‘you are accepted’, but they said we need documents. I asked, ‘what kind of documents?’ When they said party membership, I couldn’t, I was not a Baathist,” he noted.

“It was hard for me to do that at the time, to be honest, so I didn’t get the documents and didn’t go to the academy,” he said.

He recalls spending summer nights the previous year writing slogans in Arabic on the walls of Kirkuk with his friends, condemning the regime and calling for an end to “Arabisation and the forced Baathism process in the Kurdish areas”. he says.

Arabisation controversy

The former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein launched several campaigns to Arabise Kirkuk, forcing Kurdish families out of their houses and giving them to people from southern Iraq, changing Kirkuk’s demography.

Government laws, such as Order 369 of 1976, confiscated Kurdish land and moved tens of thousands of people out of the governorate. The process became worse in the 1980s, when Saddam ordered a full-scale campaign against the Kurds, which included genocide known as the Anfal campaign, killing about 100,000.

Kirkuk city lies at the border between the autonomous Kurdish region and federal Iraq. One of the biggest oil reservoirs in Iraq is also in and around the city, estimated to hold as much as nine billion barrels.

Years of conflict and erratic management of the disputed oilfield, which is already 90 years old, mean much of that may not be recoverable.

But this potential wealth has only added to tensions since the US-led invasion of 2003. The city fell within so-called disputed areas and responsibility for administration and security was shared between Iraqi and Kurdish authorities.

Growing up, Ridha saw displacement and poverty. To provide for his family, he became employed at the health directorate of Nasriyah, Dhi Qar in 1976, when he knew the Art Academy was not an option. Then he was displaced to Iran in 1991 after a massive failed uprising against the Baathists.

Ridha watched the invasion unfold from his rooftop and live on TV.

“We were very happy, we said everything will change,” he said. After a short pause, he reflects on how things are now. “This situation is not what we want.”

Despite the crimes Saddam committed against his people, for Ridha Iraq’s art scene was more developed and artists were more respected.

Misty eyed over this forgotten era, he has started painting again at the age of 70. His paintings exhibit what he calls a tragic theme. “It’s a tragedy, the people are not comfortable, they are not secure, this democracy is just slogans, it’s not real,” he said.

When Kirkuk was officially recognised as a disputed territory in Iraq’s new constitution of 2005 after the fall of Saddam, Article 140 was written to address the issues of land disputes between the Kurdish and Iraqi governments, calling for a referendum on the final status of the governorate.

After the regime fell, thousands of locals who had been displaced demanded compensation for their lost land and homes, sometimes staging violent protests. Tensions were heightened, while anti-government Sunni fighters, including Al Qaeda, began a campaign of attacks.

Swapping oppression for more violence

Hadi, a former journalist and now an expert on Kirkuk’s troubled history, says that post-2003 there was life in Kirkuk again, but a life that was “full of pain”, with frequent terrorist attacks. He has not disclosed his full name due to security threats to commentators based in the region.

Twenty years on, Kirkuk still suffers from the power struggle between Baghdad and the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government. Article 140 remains on paper, but there has been no progress towards its implementation.

“We always see Kurdish farmers around the province of Kirkuk in the news saying that the Iraqi government brings Arab tribes to occupy land belonging to the Kurds. That’s why this challenge, especially the land issue and returning it to their original owners, has entered a frightening stage,” Hadi says.

The city underwent another politically complicated process nine years ago. Iraqi forces abandoned their posts after they failed to defend the city against ISIS in 2014, and Kirkuk was then taken by Kurdish forces, who overwhelmed ISIS.

The Kurdish Peshmerga fighters were given a deadline by the Iraqi government to withdraw, but refused. Iraqi forces then retook Kirkuk in a bloody fight in October 2017 after Kurdish political parties said they would annex the province in a referendum, claiming it was rightfully Kurdish.

Despite the continuing upheaval caused by this dispute, after so many decades the Kirkukis have not lost hope that a better day will come.

“Although a lot of blood has been spilt in Kirkuk, the people have hope that this situation will be solved ... how will it be solved, we don’t know,” Hadi said.

Updated: March 21, 2023, 11:47 AM