Away from the sweltering heat and dust engulfing this northern Iraqi city, a group of friends from different ethnic groups recently discussed the future of their country in an air-conditioned store.
While their friendship appears to have survived years of ethnic division in oil-rich Kirkuk, they are all concerned about what might happen to their city if US troops leave Iraq by the end of the year as planned.
“Ideally, I would not want US soldiers to be here. But the reality makes me want them to stay,” says Mohammed Jassim, as his friends nod in agreement. “If they were to leave now, problems and tensions might emerge,” adds the young Arab musician. “There are many sides who don’t want things to go well here.”
Indeed, as the Dec. 31 deadline approaches for the US to withdraw from Iraq, a broad consensus is taking shape in Kirkuk that a continued US military presence is key to stability.
The province of Kirkuk, which shares the name of its capital city, is home to one of the world’s largest oil reserves. It has been at the centre of decades-long rivalries among Kurds, Arabs, and Turkomans, who hold competing claims on the land. Iraq’s 2005 Constitution stipulated that a referendum be held within two years to resolve those land disputes, but the vote still has not taken place.
Now militant groups, composed mostly of Saddam Hussein loyalists or Islamist extremists, appear to be exploiting divisions in the province, which lacks a unified security force of its own.
“I think the terrorist groups are concentrating on places like Kirkuk and Mosul, where they can instigate political differences among the groups,” says Najmaldin Karim, Kirkuk’s Kurdish governor, one of the few officials who has been willing to publicly urge US forces to stay. “The US can play a good role as a broker between different communities in Kirkuk and intervene in times of crisis.”
Iraqi leaders agreed this week to begin negotiations over a possible extension of the US troop presence in Iraq.
Security forces ‘not ready’ to take over from US
Saddam Hussein expelled tens of thousands of Kurds and Turkomans from the province and replaced them with ethnic Arabs. The goal was to ensure the uninterrupted flow of oil from the province by populating it with people whom the regime trusted.
US leaders have supported the rights of Kurds since toppling Mr. Hussein’s regime in 2003. But eight years later, Kirkuk – like much of Iraq – is still seen as an unfinished business in danger of collapse.
Although Kirkuk has been less affected than other provinces by the mayhem that has wracked the country, it has had its share of violence. In recent months, a series of bombings and assassinations rocked the province, arousing fears that the situation might further deteriorate if the United States withdraws its remaining forces.
“The security situation is not stable here, and there are all sorts of problems and disputes,” says Ali Mahdi Sadiq, the spokesman for Iraqi Turkoman Front (ITF), the largest Turkoman political group in Kirkuk. Turkomans constitute the third-largest ethnic group in the province
“The security and police forces are not ready yet to take over and this requires the presence of neutral troops, such as US forces, in these areas,” says Mr. Sadiq.
Lack of unified command structure among security forces
Several security and military groups are operating in Kirkuk, resulting in a lack of a unified command and operational structure. There are the units of the Iraqi Army‘s 12th Division in addition to local police forces and the Kurdish security and armed forces known as asayish and peshmerga.
“There is a security chaos in Kirkuk. Each one of the security groups acts on their own…. There needs to be a framework to address this,” says Mohammed Khalil al-Juburi, an Arab member of the Kirkuk Provincial Council. Mr. Juburi says his Iraqi Republican Gathering (IRG) is against renewing the presence of US forces in Iraq, calling it “an extension of the occupation,” but instead endorses the deployment “of a neutral international force” in Kirkuk.
Tensions increased in late February as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) deployed thousands of its elite peshmerga forces to Kirkuk in anticipation for what Kurds said were attempts by insurgents to bring down the provincial and local administrations under the guise of popular protests. That prompted many Arabs and Turkomans to cry foul and demand the removal of Kurdish forces, indicating the extent of distrust between various groups.
Kurds want to annex Kirkuk to the Kurdistan Region to the north that is administered by the KRG. Many Iraqi Arabs and Turkomans view Kurdish attempts to incorporate Kirkuk into their territory with suspicion, considering it a move toward outright independence.
Perhaps recognising the perils of inaction, Kirkuk’s rival groups arrived at a deal in March to reshuffle the top administrative positions. Kurds retained the office of governor, but gave up the post of head of the provincial council for a Turkoman politician from the ITF. An Arab from the IRG was sworn in as deputy governor. There have been no provincial elections in Kirkuk since 2005, and Kurds control 26 out of 41 seats in the provincial council.
“It is true that there is some sort of agreement between the groups in Kirkuk, and all ethnicities are represented in the provincial council,” says Sadiq of ITF. “But a solid agreement between different political factions is still lacking.”
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