One Kurdish protester has been reportedly killed in Kirkuk with seven others injured after being shot at by members of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).
Tension has been brewing in Iraq's long-contested city for the past week. Kurds had been protesting the closure of the Kirkuk-Erbil road by the PMF who objected to the handover of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) headquarters on 28 August, as mandated by Prime Minister Mohamed Shia al-Sudani.
Kurds vowed to continue protests until the road was opened and called on Iraqi leaders to urgently resolve the situation.
While this is the latest eruption of violence, it is not the first. Kirkuk, due to its ethnically diverse composition and complex history, has long been a powder keg.
Trigger warning: Video showing the moment when security forces started firing live ammunition at Kurdish protesters, demonstrating against the closure of the main Kirkuk-Erbil highway, in Kirkuk. pic.twitter.com/OTK8ehfBxV— Rudaw English (@RudawEnglish) September 2, 2023
Wander around the various neighbourhoods of the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk and you will be hard-pressed to spot any visible differences as you go.
From the northwest, where Rahimawa, Al-Shorja, Baroud Khana, and Imam Qasim have Kurdish majorities, to the historical centre in the Turkmen-Kurdish areas of Ahmed Agha and Haşirki, to the Arab quarters in the south and southeast, including Al-Qadisiya, Al-Uruba, Al-Shuhada, Al-Mandouda, and Al-Awal min Huzeiran, all are visually, demographically, culturally, and economically identical.
Yet this is a city in the middle of a brewing political, security, and economic conflict between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the central Iraqi government in Baghdad. It has been fought over for years, with no signs of that tradition ending.
That squabbling may be taking its toll. The city looks tired and neglected, with little development, few job opportunities, and severe environmental pollution. Built on the banks of the Khasa River, a drying tributary to the Tigris, its historic castle is symbolic of its lack of maintenance.
Despite glimpses of local costume and the sound of local accents and dialects, Kirkuk appears to be a quiet, interconnected, and lively place, with no cultural, security, or class barriers. But this is only what meets the eye.
Staking the battlegrounds
On the surface, there are bitter arguments. Security, politics, and finance are all battlegrounds, as they have been almost since the birth of the Iraqi state. At its heart, the dispute is over the national identity of the city and the province, as well as the shape of its ruling system, affiliation, and political future.
Accurate and up-to-date population statistics are hard to come by, but the area has three sizeable minorities – Kurd, Turkmen, and Arab – with no majority. Optimists call it ‘coexistence’ but politically there is not much bonhomie.
For a start, there is a disagreement among the rural population over the ownership of agricultural land. The Kurds and Turkmen complain about systematic Arabisation (the process of adopting Arabic culture, religion, language, and identity by non-Arabs).