After decades of bloodshed, Kurdish villagers in oil-rich northern Iraq are waging a new battle against Exxon Mobil.

slate rectangle logo

RANIA, Iraq—

In 1977, after the Iraqi Army first attacked his home village of Gullan in the Kurdish north, Askendar Mohammed went to live deep in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, where he served as a peshmerga—a term used to describe Kurdish fighters, meaning “those who confront death.” He fought for more than two decades, even as Saddam Hussein dropped chemical weapons on Kurdish towns and villages, murdering thousands.

An uprising in 1991 ultimately failed to depose Saddam. But after U.S. forces set up a no-fly zone over much of the north, Iraqi Kurdistan began to wrest itself from decades of fighting and move toward autonomy. For his valor in the uprising, Mohammed was elected the mukhtar, or village head, of Gullan, and gradually memories of war became eclipsed by promises of wealth and independence. Today, Mohammed, the aging peshmerga, has settled into a new life of calm; the shotgun tucked into his pants is more an accessory than a tool of the trade.

Underwriting Iraqi Kurdistan’s bright future is oil

But underwriting Iraqi Kurdistan’s bright future is oil—an estimated 45 billion barrels are waiting to be exploited in the most secure part of the world’s fifth-largest oil economy, much of it in the mountainous regions around Gullan. The village’s peshmerga are revered and laid-back in their retirement, but since last summer Gullan has faced a new adversary, one for which decades of firing kalashnikovs in the mountains hadn’t prepared the fighters. Exxon Mobil won the contract from the Kurdistan Regional Government to explore near Gullan, and the oil behemoth has already begun digging holes in the mountains. The villagers are on edge.

An audience gathers to watch performers at the 3rd annual Gullan village festival. In the past, while the Iraqi government cracked down on the Kurdish minority, celebrations like this were illegal.

In April, I traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan for the third-annual Gullan festival, a daylong picnic where villagers celebrate Kurdish traditions and village life. During the festival, locals unfurled enormous Kurdish flags over the rocky slopes. On a brilliant green foothill, white pick-up trucks came loaded with elaborate picnics that would feed villagers through a day of singing, dancing, and slapstick Kurdish plays that involved a lot of actual cheek-slapping. Mohammed’s wife set out aluminum trays of white sheet cake, spread thinly with bright prink frosting, on the picnic blanket where we sat. The festival had been devised by older residents, including Mohammed, who worried that the development of Iraqi Kurdistan might cut off a new generation of Kurds from their history as decisively as war had almost cut off theirs. Exxon’s presence in the surrounding hills was a harsh reminder of that.

Villagers unfurl a large Kurdish flag near the festivities. Once seen as a symbol of an oppressed minority, the flag is now a proud reminder of the Kurdish struggle for freedom and autonomy in Iraq.

Villagers worried about the impact of an oil windfall—dividing society, replacing local populations with foreign workers, courting war. Although some villagers needed jobs, they weren’t optimistic Exxon would provide them. They found no inspiration in a future similar to other oil-rich nations. “Kurds have never benefitted from oil,” a member of the Gullan village council told me. “Oil was the cause of problems in other countries. In Iraq and in Kurdistan the oil has only meant more money for gunpowder.”

The villagers’ simple lives were hard-fought, and they are not eager to see them disturbed by Exxon. A revolutionary spirit has fueled Kurdish society for so long that, even though that spirit was now mostly symbolic—the peshmerga uniform signifying tradition more than might—the villagers felt defined by it. Even the festival was seen as rebellious. “Before, if we wanted to have a party like this, we had to hide in the mountains to do it,” Aisha Hamza, a local mother in her late 40s told me. “We saw the war, and now we look around the country and see that it is free… We don’t want to leave the village, even for a lot of money. We don’t need a lot of money.”

Eager spectators peek over a makeshift fence around the performers. The mountains in the background are dotted with small Kurdish villages, like Gullan, and are also the site of new oil exploration.

When I mentioned Exxon, Mohammed was at first sheepish. Initially, he had supported the company exploring the area. The possibility of a better life and full independence from Iraq, coupled with a resignation that oil was the only means to both, had led Mohammed to sign a document allowing Exxon to conduct seismic tests in the area. But so many villagers ended up opposing the move that, by April, Mohammed had firmly changed his mind. He began to talk about Exxon in the proud, threatening terms of a Kurdish peshmerga: “The uprising started here,” he said, sweeping his hands toward the mountains. “Ali Nabi”—the uprising’s first victim, and a symbol of Kurdish rebelliousness—“a very strong peshmerga, was from near here. Once people know that this is the kind of man who came from our villages, they will be scared.”

The threat of big oil warranted a new form of combat, more debate than brute force

The people of Gullan decided they would resist Exxon, but not with the guerilla tactics they fought Saddam’s army. The threat of big oil warranted a new form of combat, more debate than brute force. Last summer, Gullan residents, along with a network of area villagers led by the newly formed Assembly for the Protection of the Environment and Public Rights, greeted Exxon trucks with placards denouncing the project. Villagers, numbering around 200, according to one group member, threw logs into the road to block the oil company’s trucks. They objected for environmental and social reasons. They tried to be part of the process.

“We went to talk to the oil company,” Dara Ibrahim, a 25-year-old founding member of the environmental group, told me. “We asked if a member of our group could go with the oil company. They said absolutely not.” Ibrahim was dressed in a crisp pinstriped version of traditional Kurdish clothing; he sat straight and spoke gravely. He felt insulted by Exxon, which he thought assumed that the villagers, including the environmental group, would be ignorant of both their rights and the potential impact of drilling for oil.

The mountains around Gullan once sheltered scores of peshmerga, Kurdish fighters, who resisted the Iraqi government. They are now home to retired fighters, who see the Kurdish flag as evidence of their success.

Ibrahim, like many of his neighbors, has a university degree. Other villagers have recently returned from abroad, where they were asylum-seekers; along with them comes expertise, perspective, and, often, money. “One of our members is an engineer,” Ibrahim told me. “The company knew that if he worked with them, he would understand what is going on.” (An Exxon spokesperson, writing via email, assured me that the company goes through a “lengthy process of talking with local communities to understand their needs and share information.”)

Gullan is not the first Kurdish village to express frustration with foreign oil companies, but here, a fatalism that had characterized previous operations gave way to action. Locals told me they had learned from the experience of other villages, where promises of employment and wealth had been broken or proven impossible to fulfill due to budget disputes with Baghdad. For years, Kurds had been told that oil was the key to their future, but in many oil-rich areas, that future remained bleak. Sometimes, as with the oft-repeated claim that seismic testing would cut off the village’s water supply, the grievances veered toward nervous gossip (which, critics say, was stoked by politics).

Spectators laugh at the slapstick plays being performed at the festival. Many are concerned about the impact that Exxon Mobil, which has a contract to explore the area, will have on their lives.

In 2009, Greg Muttitt, the author of Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq, visited a town near Duhok, where locals were grappling with Hunt Oil. “It was the beginning of the whole rash of contracts,” he told me over the phone. “What I expected to find was some degree of prosperity from the jobs that oil drilling brought… What I found was a community completely cut off from the oil field, which was surrounded by rings of security just outside of town. The money wasn’t going back into the town at all, and the jobs, for the most part, were going to Iraqis coming from the major cities in Kurdistan.”

Muttit told me that the attitude among locals was “one of dejection.” They had grown used to profits from business investments in Iraqi Kurdistan going to members of the two major political parties: the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which controls the western areas and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), in the east, near Iran. “They had a pretty low view of the government’s level of interest in their welfare,” Muttitt said. “What was happening on this oil field was fairly consistent.”

For decades Baghdad had put Iraq’s oil wealth toward oppressing the Kurdish minority

Gullan was different. There, the misgivings were not easily suppressed by the promises of money or national independence. Their arguments were more philosophical. Oil, villagers could see, was a curse. Gullan needed to be preserved, not only for its natural beauty but also for its revolutionary history. They felt rich enough. For decades Baghdad had put Iraq’s oil wealth toward oppressing the Kurdish minority, and now they felt that their own government was doing the same. An industry analyst based in Erbil, who preferred to remain anonymous, recognized the uniqueness of Gullan’s protest. “They would rather leave it in the natural state and if they don’t share the local benefits, they are fine with that,” he told me.

At the festival, villagers felt wary but triumphant. There had been no underground explosions, and their water supply remained intact. The protests had gotten the attention of the media, and many of the villagers were clearly energized by the new cause. Seismic testing is only on of many preparatory steps of the drilling process, but even those villagers who openly assumed that Exxon would be back celebrated the company’s absence, however temporary.

A man walks along the mountainous area near Gullan. Iraqi Kurdistan’s untapped oil are both a source of optimism for the area, and of anxiety for the villagers who worry that large companies will push them off their land.

But a ripple of trepidation ran through the celebration. Mohammed, for instance, was nervous about the document he had signed—and he wasn’t alone. Several villagers made nervous references to that document in conversations with me. According to Mohammed and other village leaders, Exxon did not leave behind a copy. Other than a vague description of what the document permitted—“They said that they were just here to explore”—the villagers could not recall the precise terms of the agreement. Just two facts are known for sure: the mountains have oil and Exxon has a contract from the Kurdistan Regional Government.

A few days after I visited Gullan I met with a Kurdish government spokesperson, Safeen Dizayee, in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Dizayee was aware of the protests, and understood that many Kurds were unhappy with the impact oil exploration had on their lives. He urged the villagers to be patient. “Once we start to export oil—with or without an agreement with Baghdad—and we start to really develop, then people will see,” he said. “Right now, everything is just rumors.”

Like villagers in Gullan, Dizayee spoke in revolutionary terms about independence from Baghdad; even as a high-level government official, Dizayee’s own history is one with the rebellious history of Iraqi Kurdistan, and he represents a government headed by revolutionary leaders or their families. It is an irony of the modern struggle for a free Kurdistan that it requires the government to assert its authority over the same villagers, like Mohammed, who fought against Saddam’s army in the streets. Those villagers, Dizayee explained, could not determine alone what happens to Gullan. “With most land contracts there is no total ownership,” he told me. “The state has the right to work on the land.”