Kirkuk curfew lifted after four demonstrators killed in clashes

The oil-rich province is in the heart of disputed areas claimed by Iraq’s main ethnic groups: Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen

Iraqi protesters block a road following protests in Kirkuk on Saturday. AFP
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The curfew on the contested ethnically-mixed northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk was lifted on Sunday morning and roads reopened after demonstration ended, following violent clashes that have killed four people since Saturday, local authorities say.

The oil-rich province is in the heart of what is known as the “disputed areas”. Since the 2003 US invasion, it has been claimed by Iraq’s main ethnic groups: Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen.

Since then, tension has been high inside the city among these groups as Kurds pushed for annexing it to their three-province Kurdistan region.

When ISIS swept through large areas of northern and western Iraq in mid-2014, the KDP and the Peshmerga, the local security forces of the Kurdistan region, took control of Kirkuk after the Iraqi Army was redeployed.

After the 2017 controversial Kurdish referendum on independence, Baghdad moved troops to Kirkuk and expelled the Peshmerga, the Kurdish local security forces, closing the headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of the two powerful political parties in the Kurdistan region.

As part of a police deal to form the government of Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani in October last year, political parties agreed to allow the KDP to return to their headquarters in the city.

One of the buildings was used as a base by the Iraqi army since 2017 as the Joint Operation Command.

Tension has been brewing since last month, as Arabs and Turkmen staged a sit-in near the building, refusing the handover of the building to the KDP, and closing the Kirkuk-to-Erbil motorway.

The decision to hand over the building was postponed on Sunday, Kirkuk's Governor Rakan Saeed Al Jabouri said in a statement.

On Saturday night, Kurdish demonstrators staged a counter protest and marched towards the demonstrators, burning a number of cars and prompting exchange of fire. As a result, Mr Al Sudani ordered a 48-hour curfew.

As of Sunday morning, at least four people have been killed and 15 wounded, Amer Showani, Kirkuk police spokesman, told Kurdish media outlet Rudaw.

Videos on social media showed Iraqi security forces roaming the streets in convoys as a buffer to keep the rival groups apart. In one video, Kurdish residents were filmed shouting and throwing rocks and empty water bottles at them. It was unclear who opened fire.

Mr Al Sudani, also commander-in-chief of the armed forces, ordered an investigation into the deadly events.

The prime minister “emphasised holding those who are proven guilty of wrongdoing in these recent events and bringing them to justice so that they receive their fair punishment”, his office said.

Mr Al Sudani continued his discussions with political leaders to contain the crisis.

He phoned Parliament Speaker Mohammed Al Halbousi and Bafel Talabani, the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the KDP's rival in the Kurdish region.

“The two phone calls underlined the importance of seizing the opportunity to prevent any attempts to harm the stability and peaceful co-existence which the city of Kirkuk enjoys,” said his office.

After the violent clashes, Kurdish leaders issued fiery statements.

Masoud Barzani, the influential Kurdish political leader who heads KDP, criticised the violence he said was directed against Kurdish protesters.

“It’s surprising that in the past few days security forces in Kirkuk did not prevent the violence and illegal behaviour of some groups, but today the Kurdish protesters were faced with violence and (the) blood of Kurdish youth was spilt, and it will carry a heavy price,” a statement said.

Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid, called for “constructive dialogue”.

“Kirkuk was and still is a symbol of Iraqi brotherhood and a gathering of all sects, and we will not allow its image to be distorted,” he said.

Updated: September 03, 2023, 11:58 PM