Row over city of Kirkuk reignites divisions in Iraq

Sunday 16/04/2017
A story of two flags. The Kurdish flag and the Iraqi flag are seen on the Kirkuk governorate building, on April 6. (Reuters)

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.