Calm gradually returns to Kirkuk after deadly unrest kills 4 Kurds in multi-ethnic city
Kirkuk, a multi-ethnic and oil-rich province in northern Iraq, is a disputed area between the Iraqi federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Tensions began late in August when Arab and Turkmen communities of Kirkuk, mainly from Iran-backed Asaib Ahl-Haq militia, asked Iraq's Prime Minister Mohammed Shia' al-Sudani to withdraw his order for the Iraqi military's Joint Operations Command (JOC) to hand over their headquarter located in the Shoraw Kurdish populated neighbourhood to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).
The Arab and Turkmen protesters then blocked the Kirkuk-Erbil highway and established sit-in tents. Blocking the road caused a traffic jam, and drivers were obliged to use Shoraw's streets to go to Erbil. On Saturday, Kurds in Shoraw and other Kurdish neighbourhoods held a counter-demonstration to call for local authorities to open the highway, saying the blockage has negatively impacted their businesses.
Soon after, the protest turned violent. as the Kurdish demonstrators headed towards the tents of the Arab protestors installed in front of the JOC building.
اطلاق الرصاص الحي على المتظاهرين خطأ..— Omar Habeeb | عمر حبيب (@TheOmarHabeeb) September 4, 2023
اطلاق الرصاص الحي على المتظاهرين خطأ..
اطلاق الرصاص الحي على المتظاهرين خطأ..
كم رفضنا استخدام الرصاص الحي ضد تشرين و ضد متظاهري الاطار و ضد متظاهري التيار الصدري نرفض اطلاق النار على اهلنا في كركوك ..
الرصاص لن يحل شيء .. #كركوك pic.twitter.com/WzT8a9ZTLM
Consequently, four Kurds, three civilians and an unarmed peshmerga from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) were killed reportedly by the gunfire from Iraq's security forces.
"When such demonstrations are held, different kinds of people, political parties and foreign states are interfering in them," Mohammed Dushiwani, a PUK leadership member, told The New Arab in a phone interview on how events turned violent.
"All the victims are members of the PUK," he added.
Following the deadly incident, Sudani ordered the formation of a fact-finding committee to investigate the incidents in Kirkuk and take legal actions against "those found to be negligent" and "creating chaos in the city".
Authorities in Kirkuk also imposed a curfew late on Saturday and lifted it early on Sunday. They also arrested tens of Kurds for participating in the demonstrations; police forces reportedly arrested several members of Iraq's security forces on charges of shooting the protestors.
TNA contacted Amr Shwani, spokesperson of Kirkuk Police, as well as two Kurdish lawmakers in the Iraqi parliament's security and defence committee, but they were not immediately reachable to comment.
Late on Sunday, Sudani met with several lawmakers representing different components of Kirkuk, reiterating that those who created chaos will be brought to justice.
The semi-autonomous Kurdistan region held a failed referendum for independence from Iraq, including Kirkuk city, on 25 September 2017. The move backfired, and the Iraqi forces expelled the Kurdish Peshmerga forces from the city a month later.
The KDP once used the headquarters, but then it was used by the Iraqi army as a base after they expelled the Kurdish peshmerga forces in October 2017.
Answering another question, who may have opened fire and killed the Kurdish protesters, Dushiwani said they are waiting for the fact-finding committee to formally announce the perpetrators.
Families of the deceased told local media that their loved ones were killed by heavy machine guns, probably fired from armoured vehicles of the Iraqi army deployed in Kirkuk.
Dushiwani accused the KDP, a rival party to PUK in the Kurdistan region and Baghdad, of being "unwilling" to return to Kirkuk to represent their party in the senior levels of their politburo or leadership committee. He said the KDP could have returned to Kirkuk gradually and "in a more proper way, and prevented the killing of innocent Kurds in Kirkuk."
Today's ‘federal court’ decision is a farce -mb.— Masrour Barzani (@masrourbarzani) September 3, 2023
On the other hand, Iraq's Federal Court on Sunday decided to temporarily suspend the implementation of Sudani's order to submit the JOC to the KDP.
Masrour Barzani, the KRG PM, in his formal account on X, the social media platform previously known as Twitter, has described Iraq's top court decision as a mockery.
Dushiwani also said that blocking the Kirkuk-Erbil highway was an illegal and unconstitutional conduct by the Arab and Turkmen protestors, and authorities in Kirkuk should have taken early measures against them since the blockade had "angered the Kurds".
TNA contacted Nuri Hama Ali, a commander of the Peshmerga forces from KDP, to comment, but repeated calls were not answered.
Regional and global powers, including neighbouring Turkey and Iran, have a vested interest in the stability of Kirkuk and are closely watching the developments. Any escalation in violence in the region could have broader implications for the already volatile Middle East.
As the unrest in Kirkuk unfolds, the world waits anxiously to see whether the various stakeholders can resolve peacefully and prevent further destabilisation in this historically tense and contested city. The coming days and weeks will undoubtedly be critical in determining the path forward for Kirkuk and its diverse population.