Saturday, January 31, 2009

Kirkuk: The Province That Couldn’t Vote

There is a reason that Kirkuk did not vote today. Kurds insist that it is Kurdish, the Turkmens say it is Turkmen and the Arabs have their own claim.

Because of its huge oil resources and long history of tension the people of Kirkuk, who are from diverse national and religious backgrounds, feel fear and great anticipation for the future of a city that is being fought over not by its political leaders, but by central, provincial and Iraqi political powers.

These powers have raised the slogan of an Iraqi future and a united land, while lifting the electoral injustice in areas such as Mosul, Tikrit and Diyala that did not get proper representation in the previous
elections. These places border Kirkuk to the north, south and east, and along it are the disputed lands which the Kurds want to join to their own region.

The Arabs and Turkmens want to hold local elections in Kirkuk, where the Kurds got 26 seats in previous elections, Arabs six and Turkmens nine. The Arabs and Turkmen also want to impose conditions on people who came to Kirkuk after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The Kurds consider these people to be refugees driven out by the previous regime, while the Arabs and Turkmens insist that they are Kurds who come from other areas outside the borders of Kirkuk. The arrival of so many Kurds could affect the outcome of a referendum or agreement on the city’s future, which has been long delayed because of the political, sectarian and ethnic divisions.

The people of Kirkuk watched on television the electoral and public campaigns in the rest of the country, but went out onto their own empty streets with no campaign ads, except for posters put out by the
American forces of four young men and children, smiling and hugging each other and dressed in the clothes of the province’s different groups.

What worries the people of Kirkuk, especially the Arabs and the Turkmens, is the presence of a strong and active secret police force that works in favour of the two Kurdish parties, which is the Asaish.
The Kurds consider it a force that has provided security, and fought terror.

The worrying thing for the Kurds today, something that endangers them and might worsen the tension, is the appointment by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of an army commander from the Shiite Arab town of Hilla in central Iraq. He is now working to spread his forces along the eastern, northern, western and southern borders of Kirkuk. This includes the green line of 2003, where there are Kurdish Peshmerga units.

The Kurds accuse this commander of working to bring Shiite Arabs to Kirkuk. The commander says that he came to impose the law and protect Iraq’s oil, especially against terrorists who have moved into the northern part of Kirkuk and who have blown up oil lines several times.

The Kurds are worried by these units and this led them to gather along the border of Kirkuk. The Kurds are trying to get the Arabs to unite with them to fight the government in Baghdad, and are calling to establish a Kurdish-Arabic coalition in Kirkuk against the Iranian and Turkish currents which support Mr. Maliki’s government.

The Arabs lost many votes in the previous elections because Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia controlled their areas, and prevented them from voting. Arabs understood later that Al Qaeda’s political agenda was to weaken them and the Turkmens. The lucky ones were the Kurds who were more organized and united.

After these elections there are going to be changes that will cause more stress, and some will work hard to reignite Arab-Kurdish tensions. Kirkuk will be the first place to witness that.

There are more than 38 neighborhoods in Kirkuk where Al Qaeda violence has led all the different religions and ethnic groups to live each in their own areas, with a majority of Kurds in the north, Turkmens in the center and Arabs in the south. Kirkuk also lacks services and projects that were promised by the Americans.

The Kurds’ biggest fear in Kirkuk came after the government’s success in fighting Al Qaeda in Arab areas, which restored the security for Arabs and improved their balance against the Kurds.

The Kurdish street, which includes many extremists and nationalists, feels that they have failed to add Kirkuk to the northern Kurdish region, and failed to bring independence to it.

The reality in Kirkuk today is fear of the future.

Baghdad Bureau


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