The multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk has seen a tumultuous night of protests and violent clashes that have left at least four Kurds dead and scores injured.
The unrest erupted when Kurdish demonstrators took to the streets on Saturday to denounce the closure of the Kirkuk-Erbil road by Arab and Turkmen factions.
The incident was triggered by the Iraqi government’s decision to return the headquarters of the Joint Operations Command in Kirkuk’s Shoraw neighbourhood to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the ruling party in Iraqi Kurdistan.
This decision triggered a sit-in and road blockade organised by Arab and Turkmen demonstrators, who vehemently opposed the KDP’s return to the building. The situation escalated when Kurdish demonstrators also took to the streets to demand that the Kirkuk-Erbil road be reopened.
Tensions reached a dangerous climax when Iraqi security forces opened fire on the Kurdish demonstrators. Local police and hospital sources have confirmed that the Kurdish demonstrators died from gunshot wounds to the chest and head. The wounded include Kurds, Arabs and security forces.
One of the protesters who died, Hawkar Ebdullah, spoke to Rudaw minutes before he was shot.
“I would like to clarify once again that Kirkuk is a Kurdish city where Turkmens and Arabs also live,” he said in the interview. “Kurds always want to keep the peace. But they have disturbed the situation.”
It has emerged that Ebdullah fought against ISIS on the same front line as the People’s Defence Forces (HPG) guerrillas during the ISIS assault on the region.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani swiftly ordered a curfew in the city in response to the escalating unrest, but the curfew was lifted and the highway reopened by Sunday morning.
Kirkuk, an oil-rich city with a diverse population of Kurds, Sunni and Shia Arabs and Turkmen, has long been a crucible of ethnic and political strife.