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Fear of Violence in Kirkuk

People of northern city concerned about feuding parties and increased attacks following US pullback.
By Samah Samad

Two recent explosions in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk have raised concerns of a sustained return of violence to the area, as local factions flex their muscles following the withdrawal of United States forces from the streets.



The blasts dashed hopes that security would improve in the city after US forces – seen by some as occupiers and others as liberators after ousting Saddam Hussein in 2003 – quit urban areas on June 30.



The first explosion happened in the Taza district to the south of Kirkuk, a majority of Shia Turkoman area, a few days before the withdrawal date, while the second in Shurja district, northeast of the city, where a Kurdish majority live, coincided with the day of the American pullback. The two blasts killed at least 300 people and injured many more.



Ameer Abbas, a Turkoman, had a narrow escape from under the debris of his house that was destroyed in the Taza blast. He is in hospital after suffering broken limbs and a haemorrhage of the abdomen. He is also traumatised by the deaths of eight of his family in that explosion.



“Our district was targeted because it is purely Shia, and there are many sides who work against Shia people. But what happened recently won’t shake our faith and principles,” Ameer said.



Oil-rich Kirkuk has been a source of conflict between political blocs in the city and the central government in Baghdad since 2003. It witnessed a number of bloody extremist attacks over that period that left hundreds of victims. The population is predominantly Kurdish, Arab, Turkoman and Assyrian with other smaller minorities.



Major General Jamal Tahir, chief of the Kirkuk police, said that Kirkuk had been noticeably stable of late until the two blasts, “Withdrawal day was considered a day of celebration as Iraqi forces took over the security from alliance forces. It showed local forces were trusted to keep safety and protect the people.”



Tahir said American forces in Kirkuk had played an important role in supporting local security forces in training and logistics in addition to joint operations.



Stability in Kirkuk depends on the different groups reaching a political consensus, say local observers. The Kurds want to make Kirkuk a part of the Kurdistan region, an idea that is rejected by Turkoman and Arabs and which is the focus of conflict in the city.



This lack of agreement makes many people here worry about the future of their city, and neighbourhoods with ethnic majorities fear possible extremist attacks.



Lieutenant Abdul Ameer Ridha, commander of Iraq’s 12th army division, said security in Kirkuk will improve following the US withdrawal. People’s heightened confidence in the Iraqi armed forces was clear from the way they celebrated the occasion on June 30, he said.



"The improvement in security will not be complete without citizens' cooperation and involvement. What we need now is the people’s awareness of how to maintain security by cooperating with [our] forces and informing them of anything they suspect," Ridha said.



The 12th army division is responsible for protecting Kirkuk's borders and infrastructure like oil pipelines and electricity pylons.



But some local leaders are not hopeful that security will improve because of the ethnic composition of the security forces.



Hasan Turhan, a representative of the Turkoman Front on the Kirkuk provincial council, said, "Leading and managing security forces in Kirkuk is monopolised by the Kurdish elements, and I believe this to be a huge gap in the ability of the security forces in the city to do their job."



Moreover, there’s unease in some quarters over the presence in the city of the Kurdish force known as the Asayish, which Turhan said raises both “concerns and condemnation from Arabs and Turkoman”.



Mohammad Khalil, a member of the Arab Association in Kirkuk, accuses Kurds of dominating security forces in the city, “Security forces’ affiliation to one [group] in Kirkuk poses a danger that other groups will be marginalised, which creates a kind of security imbalance in the city.



“Regular Iraqi military forces should come instead of those forces in the city after they failed to maintain security.”



For their part, Kurds consider the 12th army division a source of danger because it is composed of elements from southern and central Iraq who are thought to dislike the Kurds of Kirkuk.



"That [division] reminds the Kurds of the former regime which was a source of danger and concern for so many years. That kind of thing led to divisions in the city,” Turhan said.



In view of the disagreements over security, the Iraqi Kirkuk Front, an alliance of Arab parties, last June called on the Kirkuk provincial council to hold a conference aimed at agreeing on communal quotas for a local security force – with 32 per cent each Arabs, Kurds and Turkoman and four per cent Assyrian-Chaldeans – to take the place of foreign forces once they pull back from the city centres. There was no agreement on the initiative.



Samah Samad is an IWPR-trained journalist in Kirkuk.

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