Middle East


Ethnic Tensions Mount in Kirkuk

Kirkuk, IRAQ: Iraqi Turkmen demonstrate in Kirkuk last month to protest against federalism and to insist on the Iraqi identity of the ethnically mixed city. (Photo: Marwan Ibrahim / AFP-Getty Images)

There are fears that Iraq's northern city of Kirkuk will be a hot spot for increased violence following a mass influx of Kurds into the city in a bid to reverse the Arabization policy of the government of ousted president Saddam Hussein.

"People are dying every day in Kirkuk because everyone wants to control the city, which over the years was under the Sunni Arabs and the Turkmen. In the past two years, it has come into Kurdish hands," said Saleh Younis, political analyst and spokesperson for North Political and Sociological Group (N.P.S.G.), a local organization that monitors political tension in northern Iraq.

Kirkuk, some 250 kilometers north of Baghdad, is historically an ethnically mixed city populated by Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians, Arabs, and Armenians. However, its rich oilfields have been a major sticking point that has pitted Arabs [Sunni and Shiite] and Turkmen against the Kurds, who refer to the city as the "Kurdish Jerusalem."

Some 70 percent of Iraq's oilfields are in Kirkuk and the city is, therefore, vital to the country's economy.

Arabs, many of whom were Shiite, settled in Kirkuk as a result of incentives that were offered by Saddam's former government. When the government fell on April 9, 2003, Kurdish refugees returned to the city and insisted that it was Kurdish.

As a result, many Arabs were forced to leave Kirkuk, despite Sunni and Shiite Arab leaders asking them not to. Areas that were once 80 percent Arab became 80 percent Kurd. In the process of the Kurds' reversal of the Arabization of Kirkuk, thousands of Arabs and Turkmen were killed, analysts said. Tensions are still high.

Analysts said that the next 18 months will be crucial for Kirkuk's future as this will be decided by a census and a referendum that are scheduled to take place there at the end of 2007. The referendum, in particular, should settle the question of whether Kirkuk will be annexed to the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region.

"Tensions are on the rise because of Kurdish ambitions to have a referendum in Kirkuk within a year and in other areas they claim as well," said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East project director for International Crisis Group (I.C.G.).

Tensions Between Turkmen and Kurds

Nearly 100,000 Kurds have returned to Kirkuk since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, according to I.C.G.

The I.C.G. reported that in addition to the returning Kurds who were expelled in the 1980's, other Kurds were also arriving with them to swell Kurdish numbers in the city.

"The population of Kirkuk governorate in 2003 was 850,000. Today it is 1,150,000. Where did these 300,000 additional persons come from? Let's say this number is equal to 50,000 families. Only 10,000 Kurdish families were expelled under the old regime. Where do these additional 40,000 families come from?" I.C.G.'s report asked.

For Turkmen — who were in the majority in the city 50 years ago, according to some demographic analysts — the annexation of Kirkuk by Kurdistan will further dilute their power and increase violence. Tension between Kurds and Turkmen has risen already and has been responsible for the killing of dozens of people every week.

The local Turkmen have said that the international community should intervene and protect them. Many of their families have fled the city after a serious upsurge of violence.

"We are in the middle of a major crisis. Our children cannot go to schools, medical assistance is hard to come by as there is violence even in hospitals and a large number of our people are unemployed," Abu Mounir, 45, a Turkmen resident said.

Security Deterioration

Security in Kirkuk deteriorated following the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, former leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. "A number of his group seem to have moved to Kirkuk to foment ethnic trouble, capitalizing on the divisions that exist, and create chaos," Hiltermann said.

In the past two months, the city has witnessed the bloodiest violence since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

"Most of the killings were a result of ethnic tensions. Each community wants power but unfortunately the Turkmen do not occupy positions of authority and [they] lack weapons, making them the main victims of the violence in Kirkuk," said Lt. Col. Khalif Mashhadanny, a senior member of the local police.

He added that most of the 1,000 killings in Kirkuk over the past four months were due to tension between Kurds and Turkmen.

Kurds are pinning their hopes on the implementation of Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, which aims to reverse the Arabization policy in Kirkuk by normalizing the city's situation.

"The implementation of Article 140 in Kirkuk will mean the total loss of power of Turkmen who have already been killed by Kurds who want to seize control," said Jamal Shann, deputy head of the Iraqi Turkmen Front (I.T.C.) in Kirkuk.

"This Article should not be implemented. We will do whatever is possible not to let our community lose its last vestiges of power in the government," Shann said.

According to Hiltermann, the solution to the Kirkuk problem mostly depended on what role the international community would take in at least defusing the crisis by postponing the referendum on Kirkuk and establishing a mechanism for addressing it.

Bassam Kirdar, a spokesperson for Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (P.U.K.), said that Kurds were not for the destruction of Kirkuk or for the killing of minorities but they just wanted to claim their rights by getting back what Saddam's government had taken from them.

"We will make sure that Kirkuk is in our hands through Article 140 because it is our right since we are the majority in Kirkuk and Turkmen and other minorities should accept this to prevent violence and preserve the integrity of the city," Kirdar said. © IRIN

[This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies.]