Who raised the Kurdish flag in Kirkuk?
We are face-to-face with a brand new crisis, as if there was a shortage of tension in the region. Kurds in the Kirkuk Provincial Council have voted to raise the flag of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) along with Iraq’s flag over state buildings in the province. Now - as expected - all hell is let loose.
The very first question that pops into the mind is: Who is behind this decision? According to my sources in Iraq, it is not the KRG President Masoud Barzani at all. The background of the crisis is as follows: Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim is a Kurd himself and a member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the party of former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, which used to be the dominant Kurdish party in the province. And this “flag step” seems to be taken upon the initiative of the governor and a group within the PUK.
Actually PUK has been split into two groups for a while. As it is well-known, Talabani’s PUK and Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) have been in longstanding rivalry. Yet most recently these two parties have been in rapprochement. And one group within the PUK supports this development, whereas another faction favors closer links with Iran, with which Talabani has always been on good terms. After all, the main objective of the recent Kurdish step seems to be the unification and consolidation of the PUK, which is under a risk of disintegration.
Another usual suspect, Iran, also seems to be behind the scenes. Apparently Tehran has maximized its sphere of influence in Iraq on the grounds of fighting against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). It is also influential in the part of Kirkuk, which is near the Iranian border. Most recently, Iran has even agreed with Baghdad and the PUK over a pipeline to export Kirkuk oil to Iran. Upon that, PUK’s Peshmerga forces occupied some oil fields in Kirkuk, trying to show who the boss is.
In short, Iran is certainly rubbing its hands together following this decision since it is after enhancing its influence in Kirkuk via PUK. Along the same lines, the governor of Kirkuk and PUK are also in pursuit of approaching Iran.
There is another actor who should not be disregarded in this country: The outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has also recently gained strength in Kirkuk. The number of its terrorists has reached hundreds in this province. The terrorist organization owns this mainly to the PUK, with which it has always been on good terms. After all, it is the PUK who has tolerated and thereby made room for the PKK, which must have certainly triggered the flag decision.
Another factor behind this initiative is Kirkuk’s status. According to the 140th article of Iraq’s constitution, Kirkuk is defined as a “disputed territory” and its final status is due to be determined by a referendum. Yet this has not been carried out since then because of the domestic chaos and the tension between Baghdad and Arbil. This rampant and ambiguous situation of Kirkuk, in turn, gives way to such developments.
Against this background, the KRG flag is now raised over official buildings in Kirkuk. And it seems to remain unless a judicial procedure would be initiated. According to my sources in Iraq, the tension on the ground has also peaked. Two days ago, it was reported that a vehicle drove into Turkmens demonstrating on the streets against the decision. The driver of the truck was later claimed to be a Kurd.
Of course Barzani’s KDP didn’t wait long to announce its celebration for the decision, putting its honeymoon with Turkey under serious threat. However after all, he could not afford not to back the display of the Kurdish flag, which is certainly the utmost symbol of Kurdish nationalism. Yet he didn’t stop there. Following the decision, the Kurdish leader over-trumped, by declaring that he will hold a referendum on KRG’s independence soon. Apparently Barzani is also trying to consolidate his base and head off his Kurdish rivals.
Further to that, it is noteworthy that it was only Turkey and the United Nations that made official declarations about this step. All other capitals, including Washington, remain silent. Yet Ankara’s reaction has not been as harsh as expected.
Turkey has already established contact with the KDP. According to my sources, Ankara has put forth its concerns and unrest about the development in line with its official statement following the decision. Yet still there is no tension in bilateral relations at all. Ankara emphasizes that it will monitor the developments closely and that “a flag to a flag,” in other words, “a Turkmen or Arab flag to a Kurdish flag” is not a solution. Accordingly, this would only deteriorate the crisis that can only be solved by lowering the flag.
Above all else; the main actor in Iraq, Baghdad, is furious. It has instantly announced that this move violates the constitutional law. After all, this is the main axis of this crisis, which blew the lift and revealed that “post-ISIL Iraq” will mainly be the scene of a brutal revenge between Arabs and Kurds.
Alas, we are just taking off.