Tensions in Kirkuk over Kurdistan referendum

September 10, 2017
Tremors. Kirkuk Governor Najmiddin Karim (L) attends a meeting of the Kirkuk Provincial Council, on August 29. (Reuters)

Kirkuk- Kirkuk is often described as “Little Iraq” as it re­flects the country’s di­verse communities, in­cluding their divisions, but a decision by the Kurdish au­thorities to include the oil-rich province in the referendum on the future of Kurdistan sparked renewed tensions.

The Kirkuk Provincial Council, at its regular weekly meeting August 29, voted on whether Kirkuk should take part in the referendum on Kurdish independence, scheduled for Septem­ber 25.

The council was asked to vote by Kirkuk Gov­ernor Najmiddin Karim, a high-ranking Kurdish official in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party, which is led by Jalal Talabani.

The Turkmen and Arab blocs in the council boycotted the meeting, leaving 24 of the 41 members present. Twenty-two voted in favour of participating in the referendum. The majority of those who voted were Kurds.

Turkmen and Arab council mem­bers issued statements claiming Kirkuk’s participation in the ref­erendum was unconstitutional. Their view echoes that of the cen­tral Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, which says — along with most of the major parties in Baghdad — that Kirkuk and other disputed areas are not parts of Iraqi Kurdistan.

They insist the referendum vio­lates the Iraqi Constitution, which confirms the unity of the Iraqi lands.

“Those who boycotted the meet­ing are the real representatives of our people,” said Majeed Ezzat, a member of the Turkmen bloc. “The ones who attended — whether Turkmen, Arab or Christians — are members of the Kurdish bloc and were on the Kurdish list in the local elections.”

Aziz Omer, a Turkmen po­litical analyst, accused the two dominant Kurdish parties — the PUK and the Kurdistan Demo­cratic Party (KDP) — of behaving like the Ba’athist party before the US-led invasion that top­pled Saddam Hussein.

“The KDP and PUK used to complain that the Kurd­ish political parties in Baghdad were part of the Ba’athist regime. Now, they are recruiting Turk­men and Arabs to claim that these recruits repre­sent their communities, while, in reality, they serve the Kurds who fund them,” Omer said.

Hassan Toran, a Turk­men who is a member of the Iraqi Parliament, warned that the Turkmen community would not give in to Kurdish pressure. “The Turkmen will boycott and re­fuse the results of the referen­dum. They will go to the federal court,” Toran said.

There are fears that sharp di­visions in Kirkuk could lead to instability and violence.

“We are searching for a quiet resolution to the dispute but the regional administration did not offer a way out of this dead­lock,” said Mohammed Tamim, an Arab member of parliament from Kirkuk.

Due to doubts over voter reg­istration and the volatility of the situation in Kirkuk, the prov­ince had local elections only once, in 2004. There are fears that residents of the predomi­nately Arab district of Hawija, still under control of Islamic State (ISIS) militants, would not have the chance to vote, should their areas not be liberated be­fore the referendum.

Turkmen and Arab residents of Kirkuk said they fear that Kurdish officials would rig the referendum results in Kirkuk, despite assuranc­es by the Kurdistan Regional Gov­ernment (KRG) that voting would be fair.

“The conditions that have pre­vented local elections would cast doubt on the legitimacy of the ref­erendum, as it would be held under the same conditions,” said Torhan al-Mufti, general-secretary of the Iraqi Higher Commission for Coor­dinating among the Provinces and the representative of the govern­ment in the parliament.

The Kurds in Kirkuk appear to be predominately in favour of the referendum. “Whatever the people of Kirkuk decide within the refer­endum, that decision should be respected,” KRG President Masoud Barzani told Reuters.

Christian officials are divided on whether the referendum should extend to Kirkuk. The KGR has wooed some members of the Chris­tian community there, while other members said they have been side­lined by Kurdish officials and pre­fer to be under the protection of the central government.

Other disputed areas include the town of Kara Tepe in Diyala prov­ince and Tuz Khormato in Saladin province.

Turkmen residents said they were confident their areas would not be part of a future Kurdish state, despite a referendum being conducted there; they neverthe­less said they fear that they could no longer have access to relatives in Kirkuk should the province end up under the control of Kurdistan.