Iraq's simmering ethnic war over Kirkuk
Tensions are rising between Kurdish, Arab, and Turkmen factions over power and populations in the province, the heart of northern Iraq's oil industry.
Graffiti inside this city's ancient hilltop citadel quickly spells out the tension between Kirkuk's three main ethnic groups – Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen.Skip to next paragraph
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On one wall, an eagle descends on a two-headed serpent meant to symbolize enemies of the Kurdish nation. Next to it, the word "Arab" is erased and replaced with an etched "Kurdish" in a slogan that once read: "Kirkuk is an Arab city." Another slogan reads: "Kirkuk is Turkmen."
Kirkuk has been the object of a bitter struggle over the past five years among Iraq's competing ethnic and sectarian groups. And now Arab, Kurd, and Turkmen factions seem to be digging in, anticipating that tensions may erupt in an area that is the center of northern Iraq's oil industry ahead of a promised referendum on the fate of Kirkuk Province, officially still called Tamim, its previous Baath Party-era name.
Article 140 of Iraq's Constitution was supposed to resolve the issue by the end of 2007 but the deadline for a vote has been extended to the end of June in the hopes that the United Nations may be able to broker a solution by then.
But with or without a referendum, Kurds maintain that almost the entirety of Kirkuk Province, of which the city of Kirkuk is the capital, is a natural part of their semiautonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq. Arabs and Turkmen, on the other hand, say Article 140 is now "null and void" and that other solutions must be devised.
In general, Turkmen support a semi-independent Kirkuk Province while Arabs back the idea of the central government remaining in control.
Meanwhile, the United States is exerting a mix of coercion and incentives to prevent the feuding parties from battling each other over the issue.
But already local security officials say a simmering conflict is under way with no day going by without a tit-for-tat kidnapping or assassination involving a member of the city's three competing population groups. Turkmen and Arab leaders say hundreds of their own have been jailed inside Kurdistan.
Mr. Ihsan also says that his government has proof that Turkey, which is adamant that the Kurds not be allowed to annex Kirkuk into the KRG, has members of its military intelligence inside Kirkuk at the offices of the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF), the Turkmen political coalition. "This is aggression and interference," he says.
On a recent crisp morning, Ali Hashem, an ITF strongman, was huddled with some of his colleagues at a diner in downtown Kirkuk.
Over a traditional northern Iraq breakfast of crushed yellow lentil soup and hot bread, they spoke about what they characterized as aggression and pressure by the two main ruling Kurdish parties – the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Party (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) – regarding the question of Kirkuk.