Kirkuk the powder keg

Nermeen Al-Mufti , Tuesday 12 Sep 2023

Demonstrations in the oil-rich Iraqi province of Kirkuk led to the deaths of four people this week, raising fears of further violence in the region, writes Nermeen Al-Mufti in Baghdad.

Kirkuk the powder keg
Protesters take to the streets during clashes between ethnic groups in Kirkuk


“Day after day, it becomes obvious that the political blocs that have been participating in forming governments since the interim government in 2004 are only after their own interests,” Ahmed Omer, a retired Iraqi teacher, told Al-Ahram Weekly. 

“Their continued rule on the basis of the power-sharing policy (muhasasa) has produced the chaos, corruption, and other problems that all Iraqis face.”

Omer was among dozens of people trying to buy food in a supermarket after the declaration of a curfew in the oil-rich province of Kirkuk 240 km north of Baghdad last Saturday. 

About 16 people were killed or injured the same day when supporters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) staged a demonstration in Kirkuk demanding the reopening of the Kirkuk-Erbil highway.

The highway was closed by Arabs and Turkmens who oppose the handover of the Joint Operations Command Headquarters in the region to the KDP. 

The handover was one of the conditions set by the KDP for its support for the Shiite political blocs in the Coordination Framework that backs the government headed by Prime Minister Mohamed Shia Al-Sudani after the withdrawal of the Sadrists, followers of Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr. 

The building, built by KDP, is on a land owned by the Iraqi Finance and Oil Ministries. Kirkuk is in a so-called “disputed” area according to Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, which set the maximum date for a decision at the end of December 2007.

The Arabs and Turkmen in the governorate inhabited by Arabs, Turkmen, Kurds, Christians and other minorities consider this article to have expired given the expiration date and say that the constitution needs to be amended to introduce a new date of implementation. 

However, the Iraqi Supreme Federal Court stated in 2019 that Article 140 remains in force and that it needs to be implemented despite the delay.

Kirkuk was controlled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the KDP after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 until October 2017 when the Iraqi Federal Government in Baghdad under prime minister Haidar Al-Abadi decided to take control of the province. 

Protests broke out in Kirkuk last week against a government decision to hand over the headquarters building to the KDP, which argues that it was previously used by them and that it should be given back to the party. 

According to the Iraqi News Agency (INA), the Supreme Federal Court issued an order on Sunday to stop the evacuation of the headquarters. The court held a session to consider a request to issue an order regarding the handing over of the headquarters in Kirkuk based on a lawsuit submitted by Wasfi Al-Assi, an Arab MP from Kirkuk. 

“We believe that raising the issue of the Joint Operations Command Headquarters is a major strategic mistake that may lead to the disruption of the security situation in the Kirkuk governorate and plunge it into the furnace of ethnic conflict, especially as we are on the verge of local elections that have not been held in Kirkuk for 18 years,” Hassan Turan, president of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, told the Weekly.

He added that what has been happening is part of the conflict among Kurdish partisans to control the Kurdish population of Kirkuk. 

Arab and Turkmen politicians said that the headquarters was the symbol of the Operations Imposing Law that had restored Baghdad’s control of Kirkuk. Both sets of politicians are against bargaining on the Kirkuk issue among the political blocs. 

The KDP is demanding control of the building, though it has many other headquarters in Kirkuk. After the statement of the Federal Court, a final decision should be awaited, the other politicians said.

Regarding the reason for no local elections being held in Kirkuk since 2005, Torhan  Al-Mufti, the former Iraqi minister for the Provinces, told the Weekly that “there were paragraphs in the Provincial Councils Law and the Elections Law Articles 23 and 24 that set the conditions for holding local elections in Kirkuk. Because these were not fulfilled, there were not local elections there.”

But Iraqi analyst Abdel-Ameer Al-Majar said the issue was a regional intelligence one. The situation in Kirkuk is to do with the presence of regional powers in Iraq, he said, adding that “the results are difficult to predict while the US military is monitoring the border between Iraq and Syria.”

On Tuesday this week, Kirkuk was quiet after a night that had seen protests in Kurdish neighbourhoods punctuated by acts of violence. 

Residents of the different ethnic groups and religions said that there were no problems among them but that the political forces, for the sake of their continued dominance, were ready to do anything even if it was against the interests of the people.

 They are worried that things may once again heat up in Kirkuk, with the resulting explosion affecting all of Iraq and the rest of the region. 

* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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