The Iraqi Supreme Court has suspended the handover of the Iraqi military’s Kirkuk Operations Command headquarters to the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), in order to “protect public interest and security” following violent clashes that left four Kurds dead.
The chaos was triggered by the Iraqi government’s decision to return the former KDP headquarters to the party, having been used as an army base since 2017. Over the decision, a blockade was organised by Arab and Turkmen factions, who vehemently opposed the KDP’s return to the building.
The unrest escalated on Saturday as Kurdish demonstrators also took to the streets to demand that the blockade be lifted on the Kirkuk-Erbil road.
Additional Iraqi security forces were deployed in Kirkuk, while several Kurdish youths were detained by Iraqi counter-terrorism teams. A curfew imposed during the clashes was lifted, though security forces continued the crackdown on Sunday, with sightings of military helicopters over the city, reported Reuters.
The importance of Kirkuk
Kirkuk is an oil-rich and multi-ethnic province. It is located in a region known as the ‘disputed territories’, which are claimed by both the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Iraqi federal government.
The Kurdish community has a deep cultural and emotional attachment to Kirkuk, often referred to as ‘the Kurdish Jerusalem’, and they seek to integrate the Kirkuk province into the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, citing historical Kurdish roots.
In 2014, Kurdish forces took full control of Kirkuk, along with other northern regions including Mosul, the country’s second largest city, following an insurgency by the Islamic State (ISIS) and the withdrawal of the Iraqi army from the province.
At the time, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani declared that Kirkuk would indefinitely remain under the protection of Peshmerga forces, effectively placing one of Iraq’s most important oil-producing regions under Erbil’s control.
During the Kurdistan region’s controversial independence referendum in 2017, the KRG decided to include the disputed territories, a move that was met with constitutional objections from Baghdad. Following the referendum, the Iraqi central government launched a military offensive in October 2017, retaking almost all of the disputed territories from Kurdish Peshmerga militias.
KDP’s motives questioned amid electoral manoeuvres
Iraqi Kurdistan’s Prime Minister Masrour Barzani described the Supreme Court’s decision to suspend the handover of the former Kirkuk headquarter offices to the party, as a “farce”. Nevertheless, the ruling KDP faces accusations of inciting ethnic conflict in Kirkuk.
Today's ‘federal court’ decision is a farce -mb.
— Masrour Barzani (@masrourbarzani) September 3, 2023
An analysis published by Roj News on Sunday argues that the KDP, in cooperation with the Turkish government, does not want to return to Kirkuk ahead of the upcoming elections, and is therefore attempting to manipulate the loyalties of Kirkuk residents by drawing them into conflict.
Provincial elections are expected to be held on 18 December 2023 in all Iraqi cities except across the Kurdistan Region.
According to Roj News, all Kurdish parties were expected to run on a single list in the upcoming provincial elections in Kirkuk, but the KDP had already formed an alliance with Sunni Arabs and Turkmen, jeopardising the Kurdish lists.
For these reasons, the KDP is said to have asked the Turkish government to send anti-Kurdish Sunni Arabs and Turkmen to the Kirkuk Joint Operations Command building, to set up tents and block the Erbil-Kirkuk road.
If the Kurds win eight out of 16 seats on the Kirkuk Provincial Council in these elections, they will become the dominant force in Kirkuk. As a result, the governorship of Kirkuk would be in Kurdish hands.
However, given that the KDP’s rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), has more votes than any other Kurdish party in Kirkuk, the KDP would be forced to support the PUK’s candidate for governor. Roj News claims that neither the Turkish government nor the KDP want this outcome and are therefore pushing for the Kirkuk elections to be cancelled.