Tensions in Kirkuk over Kurdistan referendum
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.