Police deploy in Kirkuk ahead of contested vote
KIRKUKPolice deployed overnight in the northern Iraqi oil city of Kirkuk to prevent any outbreak of ethnic violence ahead of an independence referendum strongly opposed by the Baghdad government, local residents said.
The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq plans to hold the Sept. 25 vote despite an Iraqi government warning it is "playing with fire" and U.S. declarations the move could undermine the fight against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants. The referendum could raise particular tension in Kirkuk, which is ethnically-mixed and contested.
Kirkuk was on a nighttime curfew on Sept. 19 after clashes erupted there the previous night between Kurds and Turkmen, a local Turkmen official said.
Shortly after sunset on Sept. 18, gunmen on motorcycles opened fire on one of the offices of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, Mohammed Samaan Kanaan, in charge of the Front’s offices, told The Associated Press over the phone. The guards returned fire, killing one and wounding two of the assailants, Kanaan added.
Hours later, a police patrol that included the brother of the slain assailant attacked another office, triggering clashes, Kanaan said. The fighting ended when a large ethnically mixed force reached the scene. No casualties occurred in the second bout of clashes.
The provincial police chief, Brig. Gen. Khattab Omar, said an investigation committee made up of all ethnic groups is probing the incident. He blamed “reckless enthusiastic youths” for the skirmishes and said that arrests have been made.
He didn’t elaborate but insisted the situation was “under control” inside the city.
Kirkuk is home to Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and Christians. Kurdish forces took control of the province and other disputed areas in the summer of 2014, when ISIL swept across northern and central Iraq and the Iraqi armed forces crumbled.
On Sept. 18, Iraq’s top court temporarily suspended the northern Kurdish region’s referendum on independence, saying it “issued a national order to suspend the referendum procedures ... until the resolution of the cases regarding the constitutionality of said decision.”
The move is just the latest in a number of rulings from Iraq’s central government attempting to stop the vote. On Sept. 12, Iraq’s parliament voted to reject the referendum and on Sept. 14, lawmakers voted to dismiss the ethnically mixed Kirkuk province’s Kurdish governor who supports the referendum.
Despite strong opposition from Baghdad, regional leaders and the United States - a key ally of Iraq’s Kurds - Kurdish officials have continued to pledge that the vote will be held.
Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi'ite Muslim militias, highlighting the broader perils emanating from the vote, have threatened to dislodge peshmerga forces from Kirkuk should the Kurds persist in holding the vote.
The Kurdish authorities are showing no sign of bowing despite intense international pressure and regional appeals to call off the vote, which Baghdad says is unconstitutional and a prelude to breaking up the country.
Friction between the Kurdish autonomous region and Baghdad has simmered for years. The Kurds have complained that the central government has not paid the salaries of civil servants in Kurdistan, while Baghdad has strongly opposed Kurdish sales of oil without its consent.
On Sept. 19, Kirkuk's provincial council voted to reject an Iraqi parliament vote last week to dismiss governor Najmaddin Kareem.
The decision to remove him came after Kirkuk - claimed by both the Baghdad and regional Kurdish governments - voted to take part in the referendum.