Kirkuk in 2018: Reforms, disputes
and Iraqi elections
• By Dana Zangna • April 20, 2018
Kurdish Peshmerga bunkers dot the landscape near the town of Chamchamal on the road from Sulaymaniyah to Kirkuk. Around 20 kilometers and a thirty-minute drive from the oil-rich city in northern Iraq, the Kurdish-controlled bunkers and the Humvees next to them surround the outskirts of the town and represent a kind of border between the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government and Baghdad-controlled Kirkuk province.
Driving from Chamchamal there is no Iraqi military presence as one passes the last Kurdish checkpoint. In early April 2018 the first Iraqi checkpoint, setup after Iraq occupied Kirkuk in mid-October 2017, is about a ten-minute drive from Chamchamal. The first Iraq checkpoint is run by soldiers of the ISOF (Iraqi Special Operations Forces), dressed in black with their trademark eagle badges.
Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) have played the central role in security in Kirkuk since October 2017
Some of them spoke Turkmen, made a few calls and then let us proceed. Locals in Kirkuk have asserted that some Shi’ite Turkmen work with the ISOF or wear ISOF uniforms at checkpoints, even though ISOF is supposed to be an elite federal unit that takes many months of training to become a member.
Near the Citadel of Kirkuk the image of a large Kurdish flag has been painted over on a bridge that connects the eastern and western sectors of the city. The bridge marks one of the main entrances to the city and the erasure of the Kurdish flag is symbolic. There few if any Kurdish flags publicly visible today despite the fact that the population of Kurds is thought to be 800,000 of the 1.4 million people in the city. There are still over 100,000 Kurds still displaced from Kirkuk and the surrounding areas, such as those from Tuz Khurmatu.
Local Municipal Police patrols are a constant presence in the city for pedestrians and vehicular traffic. Many of them have Shi’ite flags showing the Imam Hussein. The local police technically fall under the command of the ISOF, General Maan al-Sa’adi said in an interview.
Although Kurdistan Democratic Party billboards and signs have been destroyed and broken, there are Patriotic Union of Kurdistan billboards still hanging in place. Under the previous Kurdish administration Kurdish and Iraqi flags were hung at the Citadel and other locations. Now the Kurdistan flag has been removed and we saw no presence of it. Only the Iraqi one flies prominently.
The number of internal checkpoints has noticeably increased. For some locals this is a reminder of the era of Saddam Hussein’s rule with the large military presence. Black ISOF Humvees are positioned in the middle of the city and are a very common scene. Soldiers speaking southern Iraqi dialects with M4s are present alongside local police who seem to be everywhere.
Politics, elections and flags
Rakan Al-Jabouri, previously the Deputy Governor, is now the Governor of the city which he presides over from the Kirkuk Provincial Council building. He was appointed by Baghdad. He has condemned discussions about returning Peshmerga to the city to increase security. He says he absolutely refuses the suggestion.
Unlike the PUK,the KDP party members have not returned to Kirkuk after October’s events. The Kirkuk Provincial Council consists of 41 seats in total and over 20 Kurdish members are refusing to return, believing their return to the city is unsafe under the current forces and administration. The Brotherhood List, led by Rebwar Talabani, which is affiliated with PUK (they refuse this claim, but everyone thinks of them being PUK affiliated, since they had good relations with them), has also refused to go back to the city from the KRG because they think their lives are in danger.
The absence of Kurdish politicians also affects the 2018 elections in May. The KDP has no promotional material in the city for the elections. However Shaswar Abdulwahid’s New Generation list and PUK are campaigning in the city. Most of the campaign posters are from Arab and Turkmen parties. Many Kurds say they will refuse to vote. Partly this is because of the lack of KDP presence and they don’t trust PUK and they don’t see an alternative. Some have said they will vote for Yekgirtu (The Kurdistan Islamic Union) or the Kurdistan Socialist Democratic Party. It seems that the vote may decline by more than fifty percent from the last elections. The KDP has said that for it to participate in the elections in Kirkuk it wants its former offices in Kirkuk returned and the right to fly the Kurdish flag.
When it comes to Arabs in Kirkuk, some will vote for Shi’ite parties, and some for Sunnis. Turkmens are also divided, some will vote for the Turkmen Front and some will vote for Baghdad-affiliated candidates. There are also some Christians in Kirkuk, but their political choices are unclear, although there are some Christian candidates that were in the Brotherhood List that has not returned to take part in the council. There will be local elections in Kirkuk in December. The last municipal elections were in 2005.
Security and questions of joint administration
Under the 2005 Iraqi Constitution Kirkuk’s status to be either part of the KRG or under federal administration was supposed to be determined at a later date. Because it is a disputed area it has gone through several iterations of control. Prior to 2014 there was a Kurdish role in the city’s security which expanded greatly when ISIS threatened the city and the Iraqi army disintegrated. Peshmerga were deployed and took control of the city and areas around it until October 2017. In March of 2017 Governor Najmaldin Karim supported an act of the provincial council to raise the Kurdish flag in the city on government institutions. An Iraqi court ruled that the Kurdish flag should be removed in August. The current controversies in Kirkuk are overshadowed by these 2017 events and any question of returning Kurdish forces to the city is influenced by what happened over the last several years.
In a meeting with the Commander of ISOF in the district, General Maan al-Sa’adi, who is also currently in charge of security in the city, he was asked about the current situation of the city. There have been continuous nightly attacks on the outskirts of Kirkuk, such as on the road to Hawija, and around Tuz Khurmatu, Albu Mohammed and some other areas, allegedly by ISIS. He responded that they will implement new security plans soon and these minor attacks are leftovers of ISIS and other extremists. The new security plan will be implemented by the ISOF, Municipal Police, Federal Police and the ERD. He says that this will put an end to these attacks. General Sa’adi says that in regard to prospects for return of the Peshmerga that “they are part of the Iraqi Defense Forces.”
Municipal Police Chef Commander Ali Kamal Abdul al-Razak replaced the previous Kurdish Commander Omer Khatab. He has also been asked about the possibility of a joint administration for Kirkuk with involvement of the KRG and he welcomed the idea. He considers it as a good solution. “Kirkuk was always a victim of politicians, we deserve to live a good life and as you can see, everyone in the city lives in harmony away from politics” he said. He was asked about the presence of Hashd al-Shaabi in the city, which appeared to be reduced or out of sight. He laughed and replied, “their presence in the city is quite sensitive, thus they were ordered to be based in the outskirts”
Locals say that after nightfall the city’s security deteriorates. “During nighttime, the city is without authority, it’s best for everyone to be home with family and avoid trouble.” In recent months there have been reports of multiple fake checkpoints being set up by ISIS members on the outskirts of Kirkuk, targeting Federal Police and Hashd al-Sha’abi members. It is part of a low level insurgency taking place.
A post of the Kurdistan Socialist Democratic Party on display in Kirkuk in April 2017. (Courtesy)