Row over city of Kirkuk reignites divisions in Iraq
Kirkuk - Tensions between Iraq’s central government in Baghdad and Kurdish regional authorities in northern Iraq over Kirkuk have resurfaced, breaking a short-lived calm during military operations to liberate Mosul from the Islamic State (ISIS).
The row began March 28 when 25 Kurdish provincial councillors voted to fly the Kurdish regional flag over government buildings. The council session was boycotted by the 16 Turkmen and Arab members, who said the move was unconstitutional.
Kirkuk’s Turkmen residents took to the streets the next day to protest the move, which they said was aimed at putting the province under permanent Kurdish control.
“The flag represents the identity of Kirkuk, which is Iraqi,” Ramla al- Obaidi, an Arab member of Kirkuk Provincial Council, said. She said focusing on liberating the rest of the province from ISIS should be the priority.
Kurdish authorities want to incorporate the province into their autonomous region despite the objections of the federal government in Baghdad.
The Iraqi parliament rejected the Kirkuk provincial council’s decision and passed a resolution calling for lowering Kurdish flags raised over public buildings and flying only Iraqi flags.
Saad al-Hadithi, the spokesman for the Iraqi prime minister’s office, said the decision to raise the Kurdish flag violated the Iraqi Constitution. The move by Kirkuk’s provincial council also drew regional and international criticism.
“The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) is concerned by the recent decision of the governor of Kirkuk to raise the flag of the Kurdistan region of Iraq over Kirkuk Citadel,” the UN body said in a statement.
UNAMI “cautions against any unilateral steps that might jeopardise harmony and peaceful coexistence among many ethnic and religious groups that rightly call Kirkuk their home and want to live and work together,” it added.
US Ambassador to Iraq Douglas Silliman said the flag row was drawing attention from the fight against ISIS.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned the Iraqi Kurdish leadership that Ankara’s strong relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) were at risk over Kirkuk.
“I am calling on the Iraqi Kurdish regional administration: Go back from this mistake as soon as possible…We enjoy good relations right now. Do not break them,” Erdogan said. “Kirkuk is for the Turkmen, Arabs and Kurds if they are there.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned that it would “not be correct to change that region’s ethnic composition.”
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi said: “Hoisting any flag except Iraq’s national flag in Kirkuk in northern Iraq is contradictory to the country’s constitution and will increase tensions.”
Tensions escalated when the two main Kurdish parties — the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) — agreed there should be a referendum on independence for Kurdistan this year.
The referendum would “give a strong mandate to the Kurdish leadership to engage in talks with Baghdad and the neighbours to get the best deal for Kurdish self-determination,” Hoshiyar Zebari, a former Iraqi foreign and finance minister, said in Erbil.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi, on April 11, said there could not be a referendum in Kirkuk while parts of it are under ISIS control and many of its residents remain displaced.
There is also disagreement among politicians on how to interpret Article 140 of the constitution, which sets out the procedures for a referendum.
Kurdish politicians say the article is applicable in its current form but their Turkmen and Arab counterparts say the deadline for a referendum on Kirkuk passed at the end of 2007, hence the requirement for a constitutional amendment.
Even the reference to Kirkuk in the constitution has been interpreted differently.
“The name Kirkuk means the city not the province,” said Torhan al-Mufti, secretary of the Iraqi Higher Committee for Coordination between Provinces. Kurdish representatives say otherwise.
Whether it is the city or the province, some residents say the decision over Kirkuk should be made by Iraq’s overall population.
“The referendum on Kirkuk should not be done through a unilateral decision. It is an issue for all Iraqis to decide,” Sami Bayatli, a Turkmen member of the Kirkuk City Council, said.
Hassan Turan, a Turkmen member of the Legal Committee in the Iraqi Parliament, said Article 143 in the constitution puts the border of the Kurdish region at the line marked on March 19, 2003.
“That frontier is called the ‘blue line’ and it contains the three northern provinces of Erbil, Sulaimaniya and Dohuk, the safe haven from 1991 to 2003,” Turan said.
That would appear to put Articles 140 and 143 at odds with each other and constitutional disputes are expected to continue.