photo: Eddy van Wessel


Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Turning back the clock in Kirkuk

In Kirkuk, the return of Iraqi rule has brought back Arabization, with Kurds being threatened and evicted from their homes. At the same time, Arab politicians are trying to reverse Kurdification and help Arabs return to their destroyed villages. 

The statue of a Peshmerga fighter carries an Iraqi flag since the Iraqi government took over Kirkuk

Kirkuk, Judit Neurink

The taking over of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk by the Iraqi army in October has changed the balance of power in the oil-rich town that both Baghdad and the Kurds claim. The operation was part of sanctions imposed by Baghdad after the Kurds held an independence referendum that has since been declared illegal.

In Kirkuk, many signs of the three years of Kurdish control have already been erased. The pictures of Kurds who fell in the battle against the Islamic terror group ISIS have been replaced by images of Iraqi martyrs, and the twenty-meter tall statue of a Kurdish peshmerga fighter on the motorway into the city now carries an Iraqi flag. Even more important, however, is the resumption of the Arabization process, says Awad Amin, an independent Kurdish member of the Kirkuk Provincial Council.

In his office in the Council’s compound in downtown Kirkuk, with the bodyguards of Turkmen and Arab colleagues hanging around in the corridor, he says: “All the balances have changed. Some feel that now is the time to readjust all the wrong decisions made by the Kurds.”

Kirkuk is a mixed city which is shared between Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and Christians. Politically, the Kurds were a majority and held the governor’s post, but the deadlock over new elections, power sharing, and the status of the disputed city has remained impossible to break. Since the Iraqi take-over, the departure of the governor and a number of Kurdish politicians has changed the political balance of power.

In the Seventies and Eighties, the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein confiscated hundreds of acres of agricultural lands from the Kurds and gave them to Arabs whom he lured from southern Iraq in order to Arabize the area. Yet the Kurds consider Kirkuk Kurdish and call it their Jerusalem, the capital of a future independent Kurdish state. The new Iraqi constitution introduced after the dictator’s removal in 2003 includes clauses relating to the reclaiming of stolen lands. But the process has been difficult and slow.

“Only a few of the six thousand cases have ever been resolved,” Amin says. “Now we see Arabs coming back and threatening the Kurds. Anywhere they feel they can retake the land, they will. The Kurds feel hopeless.”

Most recently, Iraqi police were involved in threatening Kurds in the village of Palkana in Kirkuk Province. They ordered them to leave their homes within 72 hours, since members of an Arab tribe were waiting to take them over. After urgent complaints, the authorities in Baghdad prevented this from happening.

The threat is acute because the Kurds have lost their own security forces, who were partly evicted when the Iraqi army took over on October 16. “The government of Iraq was acting from the victory over ISIS, when retaking disputed areas,” says Amin, echoing the loss many Kurds feel after almost half of the territories under their control were taken back by Baghdad to punish them for holding the referendum.

As Turkmen and Arabs both have militias to guarantee their safety, Kurds feel exposed. “We have no problem with the Iraqi army, but the various militias have their own agendas,” says Amin. “Now there is fear of tension and protests. There is no stability, the situation is gloomy.”

But according to Rawla Hamid al-Obeidi, a member of the Arab Committee on the Provincial Council, the Kurdish forces cannot return. “They caused many problems here. They were tied to the Kurdish parties and working to further their interests. We are against those kinds of forces.” Yet the Shiite and Sunni volunteers with the Hashed al-Shabi militias are connected to political parties in more or less the same way.

Al-Obeidi states that, since the situation is now stable and safe, all Kurds are welcome to return. It is just a rumour that those who voted in favour of Kurdish independence are not welcome, she says. Still, the fact that the Kurds imposed both their referendum and the Kurdish flag on the people of Kirkuk is “a big problem for us. The Kurdish flag should only fly in those places where the Kurds rule.”

The Kurds saw the flying of their flag to be within their rights; after all they had taken control of the city after chasing ISIS away. But Al-Obeidi brands it as “imposing their vision on the city. They used their majority to push things through. Which is bullying – we are supposed to pass laws by agreement.”

While the Kurds complain about Arabization, the Arabs accuse them of Kurdification. Now that Kurdish rule has ended, Al-Obeidi is working on taking the Peshmerga to court over the destruction of Arab villages in the battle against ISIS. Human Rights organizations have reported that dozens of villages in the Kirkuk province were razed and flattened and its inhabitants expelled. While the Peshmerga branded them ISIS-villages, the operation was seen as a move by the Kurds to take over disputed areas. 

Some 82 villages were destroyed, says Al-Obeidi, and over 22 000 people were displaced and made homeless. “The Peshmerga trespassed on the rights of the Arab people living there.” She wants to bring the matter to the international courts, so those responsible will be punished, and she mounted a campaign to help the villagers to go back home.

Both Arab and Turkmen members of the Provincial Council state that the situation is better than before, but that opinion is not shared outside the Council compound. “You do not know who to trust,” says the freelance Turkmen journalist Omar Hilali. “Before, people feared the Kurds. Now anyone can pick you up.” 

And Hilali was himself picked up and forced by Iraqi security forces to sign a document stating that he had no links to the Kurdish media. “But many of my friends are Kurdish journalists! Now I dare not even pick up the phone when they call me.” The same thing has happened to NGO workers, he says. “In the thirteen years I have worked as a journalist, I have never felt like this before.”

The first weeks after the takeover saw many revenge attacks. And because many people have bought arms, citizens are wary of what will happen next. The first signs of future violence are already there: following the looting and destruction of thousands of Kurdish homes after their owners fled the nearby Turkmen-Kurdish town of Touz Khurmatu, a Kurdish resistance group has been formed to fight the Shiite militias controlling the area.

Hilali fears for the fragile relations between the different groups in Kirkuk. “Before, we thought the ties between the different components were strong. Now we know they could break under the slightest pressure.”

Awad Amin agrees that the problems between the groups have been aggravated. “The different groups are moving further and further apart.” That goes for politics as well – the Provincial Council cannot meet since the Arabs and Turkmen are boycotting its Kurdish members.

The Council seems to be following the example set by Baghdad, which continues to refuse appeals from Erbil to improve the situation through direct dialogue. For Amin, there is a strong connection. “Normalization can only happen after Erbil and Baghdad have entered into direct negotiations. Our problems can only be solved at the highest level.”

This story was published in Al-Monitor in January 2018

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