Kirkuk at the centre of Iraqi terror, vote fraud woes
LONDON - The Iraqi province of Kirkuk is at the centre of national campaigns to eliminate suspected Islamic State (ISIS) sleeper cells and address allegations of fraud in parliamentary elections with a manual recount of the ballots.
The multiethnic province, home to a mosaic of Iraq’s Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, has been the site of renewed militant attacks on civilians and government institutions, including a warehouse that contained ballots from the May 12 election.
Bodies of people abducted from Anbar and Karbala provinces and executed were found on the Kirkuk-Baghdad highway, prompting a major operation by Iraqi forces to clear remaining ISIS fighters from the area.
“The security situation in Kirkuk is stable but, at the same time, there are some ISIS sleeper cells and terrorist spots that require time to eliminate them,” a spokesman for the Iraqi Security Media Centre, Brigadier-General Yehia Rasool, told Al-Monitor website.
“There is an ongoing operation in areas south of Kirkuk, as well as in the Hamrin Mountains and Makhul to cleanse the area and eliminate the ISIS cells,” Rasool added.
Iraqi state television reported that security forces killed 14 ISIS militants during a raid on one village.
Iraq declared victory against ISIS last December but militants continue to attack civilians and security forces.
The security situation in Kirkuk has worsened since the emergence of a new militant group called the White Banners (or White Flags), which include former ISIS and al-Qaeda fighters as well as disgruntled Kurds who do not wish the oil-rich province to be under Iraqi central government control.
The Iraqi operation appears to be targeting ISIS and White Banners militants.
“The operation is a sweep-up and it is for capturing ISIS and White Banners members in Hamrin,” Mala Karim Shukr, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) office in Hamrin, told Rudaw.
Militants have frequently attacked roads where trucks carrying crude oil from Kirkuk pass through en route to the Iranian border.
The Kirkuk-Iran route was meant to allow the province to continue to export its oil after Iraq stopped using a pipeline to Turkey that went through territories controlled by the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
The fallout between the KRG and the central government was over a referendum on the independence of the Kurdistan region last September, deemed by Baghdad as unconstitutional, but the two sides are talking about using the pipeline again.
“The decision to restart exports depends on the results of the talks,” Iraqi Oil Minister Jabar al-Luaibi told state-run al-Sabah newspaper.
KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said he suggested resuming oil export to Turkey through the Ceyhan port but this time using Iraq’s State Organisation for Marketing of Oil.
“So far, Baghdad has given us no response,” said Barzani.
Calls for total recount in Kirkuk
Kirkuk was the first province to undergo a partial vote recount that will include six other provinces, as well as overseas ballots from at least seven countries following allegations of widespread fraud marring the elections.
Unlike the election results dispute in other provinces, where the fraud allegations were among parties that are predominantly from the same ethnic or sectarian makeup, the mosaic nature of Kirkuk exposes it to intercommunal conflict.
Turkmen and Arab candidates accused their Kurdish counterparts of rigging results in areas where few Kurds reside, such as Hawija, a charge denied by the PUK, the dominant party in the province.
Results of the recount have yet to be announced but politicians from rival parties have released their own findings, which are at odds with one another.
Arshad Salihi, leader of the Turkmen Front, called for extending the partial recount, as ordered by the Federal Supreme Court of Iraq, to include all votes in Kirkuk. He urged that the election results crisis in the province be treated “a special case.”
The PUK said it would not accept a total recount in Kirkuk and warned that it would take “necessary measures” should such a move be approved. PUK supporters said they were ready to take to the street should they discover that the vote recount commission “is not independent.”