by Mohammed A. Salih*
Ebril — The Kurdish flag is flying high in the wind from the rooftop of an old brick house inside Kirkuk’s millennia-old citadel, as Rashid – a stern-looking man sitting behind a machine gun – monitors the surroundings.
Rashid commands a small unit of a dozen fighters, members of the Kurdish armed forces – known as the Peshmerga – deployed to the oil-rich province since June 13.
On June 12, the Iraqi army evacuated its positions in Kirkuk province after its troops had earlier conceded control of the country’s second largest city, Mosul, in the face of advancing Sunni militant groups led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).
“Since we have been deployed here things have changed,” says Rashid, a Peshmerga for 25 years, with a sense of pride. “It’s safer now and people can go out and do their daily business.”
However, although the deployment of thousands of Peshmerga troops has in fact brought relative calm to the city so far, trouble appears to be brewing.
Rich in natural resources such as oil and home to a mixed population of Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and Christians, Kirkuk is no stranger to conflict. It has been at the heart of decades of armed and political struggles between the Kurds and successive Iraqi governments.
Since the Kurdish takeover there, armed Shia groups have been flexing their muscles, a move that has infuriated the considerable Sunni Arab population in the province and could be a potentially destabilising factor, while insurgent activity by Sunni militants continues in some parts of the province and has left tens of casualties behind so far.
The local office of the influential Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr organised a military parade on June 21 in which hundreds of armed Shia men walked through the streets in downtown Kirkuk.
“The parade was meant to send a couple of messages. One was a message of reassurance to all Iraqis that there are soldiers to defend all segments of the people,” says Sheikh Raad al-Sakhri, the local representative of Sadr, sitting on the floor of his well-protected Khazal al-Tamimi mosque. “And the other was a message to terrorists that there is another army ready to fight for the sake of the country if the [official] military [forces] fall short of their duties.”
Al-Sakhri might claim his men will protect everyone, but the Sunni Arabs here are not convinced.
At the peak of Iraq’s sectarian strife in 2006 and 2007, Sadr’s Mahdi Army was seen as responsible for summary execution of thousands of Sunnis in the capital Baghdad and other areas.
“A question for the local government [in Kirkuk] is will it allow Sunni Arabs to carry out a similar (military) parade,” says Massoud Zangana, a former human rights activist turned businessman, who alleges he has been threatened with death by Shia armed groups. “The number of Sunni Arabs is more than the Shia in this city.”
Zangana owns a television channel called Taghyir – Arabic for ‘Change’ – that broadcasts from Amman, Jordan, which some Iraqis refer to as the “Revolution Channel” for its steady coverage of Sunni protests two years ago and of the current fight between Sunni militants and the Iraqi army.
Local media are also buzzing with reports that the central government in Baghdad has delivered a couple of arms’ shipments via the city’s airport to Shia militiamen here.
Officials in Kirkuk or Baghdad have not confirmed those reports.
“Giving weapons to official security forces is okay but providing arms to one side to fight the others is wrong,” says Mohammed Khalil Joburi, a Sunni Arab member of the Kirkuk Provincial Council, wishing that the news of arm deliveries is not true.
The local government in Kirkuk is run by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a major Kurdish party that has close relationship with Iran. Many in the local media speculate that the PUK-controlled administration in Kirkuk had possibly agreed to the military display by Shia groups under pressure from Iraq’s powerful eastern neighbour, Iran.
Despite the appearance of relative calm, tensions are high in Kirkuk and security forces are visible throughout the city.
By appearing to favour Shia armed elements, Kurds might risk alienating the local Sunni Arabs and potentially push them toward cooperation with ISIS and other militant Sunni factions.
In Bashir, a village in southern Kirkuk populated by Shia Turkmen, local Shia militias and Kurdish Peshmerga forces have clashed with ISIS and other Sunni militant groups.
In the western part of the province around Hawija district, the Kurdish Peshmerga have repeatedly fought against ISIS and its local allies.
Kirkuk has not been spared suicide attacks, a trademark of ISIS and jihadist groups.
On June 25, a suicide attack killed at least five people and injured around two dozen others.
The challenge before Kurds who effectively rule most parts of the province is to prevent a spillover of violence and sectarian divisions in other parts of the country into Kirkuk.
Kurds view Kirkuk as part of their homeland, Kurdistan, and hope they can maintain their current military and political dominance in the city.
In the latest Iraqi parliamentary elections in April, Kurds won eight out of the 12 parliamentary seats allocated to the province.
Kirkuk’s vast oil fields have the capacity to produce around half a million barrels of oil per day and Kurds consider Kirkuk central to their aspirations to build an independent state.
Massoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Region, recently said that he will deploy as many forces as needed to maintain Kurdish control of the contested province.
On June 30, Barzani asked the head of United Nations Mission to Iraq to organise a referendum in which Kirkuk’s residents can decide whether they want to be part of the Kurdistan Region.
The official territory of the Kurdistan Region includes Erbil, Sulaimaniya and Dohuk provinces.
But after the Iraqi military’s recent defeat at the hand of ISIS-led Sunni militant groups, Kurds have expanded their control over large parts of the neighbouring Kirkuk, Nineveh, Diyala and Salahaddin provinces.
Now in charge of Kirkuk, the challenge for Kurds is walking a fine line between Shia and Sunni, Arab and Turkmen populations to maintain order in the medium and long term.
In a deeply-divided city facing the threat of jihadists close by, Kirkuk’s Shia and Sunni leaders who spoke to IPS appeared to have no objection to Peshmerga’s control of Kirkuk, at least in the short term.
In the heart of the city’s historic citadel, Rashid and his young men are well aware of the difficult task lying ahead. “We are here to protect all groups … We don’t wish to fight but this area is surrounded by ISIS and all sorts of other groups,” says Rashid.
“We don’t know what their goal is, but we are on alert here.”
*This article was first published by IPS News and was reprinted here with permission.
Photo: Kurdish Peshmerga fighters Credit: Kurdistan4All/public domain