Ethnic Tension in Kirkuk Village Subsides

Ethnic tensions over farmland use between local Kurds and resettled Arabs in a village north of Iraq’s disputed and oil-rich city of Kirkuk have calmed down following clashes that injured dozens of people on Friday.

The tensions prompted Peshmerga forces to make “a tactical move” by closing in on Palkana village, located in the Sargaran subdistrict of Kirkuk province, according to Peshmerga commanders speaking to Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)-affiliated media outlets. However, Iraqi Army commanders, who were deployed to the village following the tensions, met with Arab farmers on Saturday, agreeing to evacuate the resettled Arabs who had moved into the village from the surrounding area.

Both the Peshmerga forces and the Iraqi Army have now withdrawn to their previous positions, NRT English has learned.

The incident, which took place on the first day of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, prompted widespread reactions from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) officials. On the day of the incident, the KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani condemned the attack on the ethnic Kurds, stating that it was an attempt to change the region’s demographics through Arabization.

Arabization refers to the systematic effort of the former Baath regime to change the demography of parts of Iraq by displacing ethnic minorities, such as Kurds, Turkmens, and Assyrian Christians, to make way for incoming Arab populations. This tactic was employed by the Baathist regime to control cities deemed important to the regime. Since the fall of the regime in 2003 and the announcement of a new government and constitution, Kirkuk’s fate has remained unsettled and disputed between Baghdad and Erbil.

Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution outlined a political process for determining Kirkuk’s fate, which included demographic normalization, a census, and a referendum on whether the city would join the Kurdistan Region or remain under the control of the federal government. This referendum, meant to be held by 2007, never took place, perpetuating ongoing disputes.

The KRG’s board responsible for the affairs of the disputed territories issued a strong statement on Saturday, calling on the Iraqi government to limit “such adversity” and reiterating support for the implementation of Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution. The statement also called on the Iraqi presidency, Kurdish ministers, and parliamentary factions in Baghdad “to use their constitutional powers to implement this constitutional article and increase their efforts to end these violations.”

Statements like these fail to have much impact, as the Kurdish authorities do not share a united stance vis-a-vis Baghdad.

Despite previous governors being Kurdish, the Iraqi government controlled the province’s security until the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in 2014 when local security forces vacated the area following the disintegration of the Iraqi army. The Kurdistan Region’s Peshmerga forces, predominantly from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), filled the vacuum, effectively taking control of the city, including its oilfields.

In 2017, after the Kurdistan Region’s ill-fated independence referendum, which included Kirkuk, the Iraqi security forces forced the Peshmerga forces out of the city. Since then, the city has been under the control of Iraqi security forces, with an acting governor from the Sunni-Arab component.

Various reports of Arabization in Palkana and other areas have surfaced following the shift in power, with independent outlets like Kirkuk Now frequently releasing reports about land issues facing the Kurds.

While the recent incident underscores the ongoing disputes between Erbil and Baghdad over the fate of the disputed territories. It also raises questions about the Kurdish authorities’ ability to effectively protect the Kurds and resolve the ongoing issues. KDP-PUK rivalries have further complicated matters and left the fate of the Kurdish population in these areas uncertain.

The KDP has frequently raised the issue in Kirkuk, using it as an opportunity to subtly highlight the PUK’s negligence of the city and express its desire to return its security forces to the province. Intense rivalries between the two parties have prevented the nomination of a joint Kurdish candidate for the Governorship of Kirkuk, despite initial breakthroughs in 2019 on candidates. The post, which has been filled on an acting basis, was traditionally allocated to the Kurdish component. The position was last filled by Najmadin Karim, who was ousted from his post by authorities in Baghdad for spearheading the independence referendum in the disputed territories. He later died in Washington in 2020.

The new Iraqi Premier, Muhammad Shia al-Sudani, vowed to resolve outstanding issues between his government and the KRG when he took office in October. However, there has been little progress on the ground. Erbil’s setback in its energy sector and the strained relations between the KDP and PUK make any advancement for the Kurdish cause appear less likely than it was several years ago.