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Tension on the rise between Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs over Kirkuk's fate

Tension on the rise between Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs over Kirkuk's fate

When Abdul-Karim Wadi, a Shiite Arab, got what amounted to thousands of dollars cash and a free apartment to move to Kirkuk from Baghdad 18 years ago, he says he didn't know he was a tool of Saddam Hussein's campaign to flood the ethnically mixed, oil-rich city with Arabs.
Now, Wadi says, Kirkuk is home and he has no plans to leave. He's trying to ride out the increasing outbreaks of ethnic tension, a symptom of a deeper struggle for the city's future _ a complex tangle of ancient ethnic antagonism and hardball 21st century struggle for oil resources.
The Arab and Turkmen population in Kirkuk are fighting Kurdish efforts to join the city _ they call it the "Jerusalem of the Kurds" _ to the their semiautonomous region just to the north. Thrown into that ethnic cauldron are Armenian and Assyrian-Chaldean Christian minorities.
Turkey, Iraq's northern neighbor, has compounded the troubles over Kirkuk as it exerts heavy pressure on the Iraqi government to protect the interests of the Turkmen, ethnic Turks who once were the majority in the city. Ankara seeks to assure that Kirkuk remains a part of Arab Iraq.
Turkey's motivation is simple. It continues to face harassing attacks by Kurdish guerrillas who cross freely from Kurdish regions in northern Iraq to fight with their ethnic brethren who live in southeastern Turkey and have been fighting a secessionist war since 1984.
Turkey fears that the economic boom to Iraq's Kurdish region, should it gain control over the Kirkuk oil fields, could further embolden Kurds inside Turkey in their bid for autonomy or statehood.
Iraqi Kurds, including some who hold high positions in the Baghdad government _ President Jalal Talabani for one _ have accused Turkey of interfering in Iraqi internal affairs through recent statements that Kirkuk must not be annexed to the Kurdish region in Iraq's north.
On Sunday, Barham Saleh, a Kurd who is deputy prime minister, met Turkey's ambassador to reject the Turkish stand.
"The fate of Kirkuk and other local issues will be dealt with through the will of the Iraqi people and the constitution," Saleh's office said in a statement.
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, also a Kurd, met in Switzerland Friday with Abdullah Gul, his Turkish counterpart, and rejected what he called Turkish interference in the Kirkuk and statements about the rights of the Turkmen, saying both were "a purely Iraqi matter."
Since the ouster of Saddam Hussein nearly four years ago, Arabs and Turkmen have accused the Kurds of moving thousands of their people back into the city to gain a majority in a referendum later this year to determine Kirkuk's future.
The last census in Iraq that showed ethic breakdowns was in 1957, well before Saddam began his program to Arabize Kirkuk. That count showed 178,000 Kurds, 48,000 Turkmen, 43,000 Arabs and 10,000 Assyrian-Chaldean Christians lived in the city.
Kirkuk, an ancient city that once was part of the Ottoman Empire, subsequently witnessed a major deportation of Kurds in conjunction with the forced influx of Arabs during Saddam's 23-year rule. He forced Kurds into refugee camps in the Kurdish provinces of Sulaimaniyah, Irbil and Dahuk.
Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, tens of thousands, perhaps as many as 100,000, of those deported have returned to their hometown, local officials say.
Kirkuk is the capital of Tamim province, where the population is estimated at 1 million. There are no good figures today about ethnic percentages that make up that total, although most officials agree that Kurds are now the majority, with Turkmen and Arabs about tied for second position.
Those estimates are based on the results of the December 2005 election in which Kurds took 26 seats on the 41-member Provincial Council. Turkmen had nine, Arabs five and Assyrian Christians one.
Arab and Turkmen members suspended participation in the provincial council in November, charging unfair Kurdish dominance.
Article 140 of the new Iraqi constitution stipulates that Kirkuk's status must be resolved by the end of the year. No date has been set yet for the referendum, and Arabs and Turkmen reject the constitutional directive. Kurds want it enforced in hopes of annexing Tamim province and, therefore, Kirkuk, to the Kurdistan semiautonomous region.
The U.S. Iraq Study Group, headed by former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton said in its report released in December that "given the very dangerous situation in Kirkuk, international arbitration is necessary to avert communal violence. A referendum on the future of Kirkuk would be explosive and should be delayed."
Hundreds Kurds demonstrated in Kirkuk against the report.
Rizgar Ali, a Kurd who heads the provincial council, also criticized what he called Turkish interference in Iraq's affairs, saying "the question of Kirkuk has solutions and mechanisms that the Iraqi politicians and people agreed to according to article 140 of the Iraq constitution. This is an internal Iraqi affair and no country should stand against that."
"These countries should stand with our democratic project not to block it," said Ali, an official in Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
Jamal Abdullah Chan of the Iraqi Turkmen Front accuses the Kurds of trying to drive ethnic Turks from the city with bomb attacks on predominantly Turkmen that have killed or wounded scores.
"There is a political plan to force Turkmen to leave Kirkuk in order to empty it from its people, even though we see Kirkuk as an Iraqi city with Turkmen culture," Chan said.
Unlike Kurdish officials, Chan sees Turkey's stance "as supportive to Iraq's unity especially that Kirkuk is a regional and international matter because of its multicultural nature."
He said paragraph 140 of the constitution should be excised or its implementation delayed.
Arabs in the city see the plan to annex Kirkuk to the Kurdish region as part of a campaign to divide Iraq.
"The stance of Arab countries and Turkey is aimed at salvaging Iraq from the increasing violence and attempts to tear it apart," said Abdul-Rahman Munshid al-Asi, an Arab tribal leader in the city.
Wadi, the Shiite Arab who settled here 18 years ago, insists _ along with many others in the polyglot city - that the referendum and Kirkuk's final status won't force him to abandon his 18-year roots.
"Kirkuk is a beautiful city. It's pleasant to live here. It is not easy for a person to leave it. If they ask me to leave, I will say 'no' even if they annex it to Kurdistan," Wadi said.
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Mroue reported from Baghdad.


Updated : 2021-07-29 20:28 GMT+08:00