Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Political Parties Stir Unrest in Kirkuk

Kirkuk’s politically-charged graffiti highlights the rising tide of inter-ethnic tension.
By Dana Asaad

In a corner of Kirkuk’s Turkoman Domeez Quarter, a piece of graffiti in bold black paint backs an Arab Shiite militia group against the leaders of the two main Kurdish political parties: No to Jalal, no to Massoud, the Mahdi Army will Return.

Hisham Hazim lounges near the town’s main market, playing with his prayer beads. He may not have painted on the graffiti, but he agrees with every word, “As Iraqi Arabs, we used to be the dominant force in Kirkuk and we could do what we wanted. But since Jalal [Talabani] and Massoud [Barzani] came, we’ve been marginalised and now the Kurds are dominant and want to drive us out. But as long as the Mahdi Army exists, no one can touch us.”

The slogans painted on walls in the Kurd and Arab parts of the city may have different names and factions but the messages of intolerance are the same.

In the Kurdish quarter, the walls are a mix of pro-US slogans and claims that Kirkuk belongs to Kurdistan. Graffiti in the Arab areas, meanwhile, curses the Americans and the Kurds.

In the predominantly Turkoman neighbourhood of Tis’een, there are occasional slogans proclaiming, “Long live Arabs and Turkomens”– mention of the Kurds is noticeably absent.

Kurdish, Turkoman and Arab inhabitants of Kirkuk had managed to live together in some degree of harmony for years, but, according to residents, April marked a turning point in the city’s inter-ethnic relations.

“The Kurdish peshmerga forces arrived and basically occupied the city,” said Muhammed Ara Oghli, a member of the executive council of the Turkoman National Movement. “Then the situation began to deteriorate. The two main Kurdish parties, the KDP [Kurdistan Democratic Party] and the PUK [Patriotic Union of Kurdistan] encouraged the pershmurga to loot our institutions and take their resources to the Kurdish towns of Erbil and Suleimaniyah.”

The Kurds deny these allegations. “The US wouldn’t allow Peshmurga into Kirkuk at the end of the war, so any looting that took place then has nothing to do with them. Let’s face it, there are always instances of looting and unrest wherever there is instability or a political vacuum,” said Kamil Salayee, the PUK’s representative at the Kikuk Information Centre. “When the peshmerga arrived, they were actually protecting buildings.”

Whatever the truth, the rumour has taken hold in Arab areas of the city. Abdur-Rahman Street runs through a neighbourhood inhabitated mainly by Iraqi Arabs settled in Kirkuk by Saddam’s regime. Graffiti on a school wall there reads, Jalal + Massoud = Looters. No one at the school was willing to talk to IWPR about the slogan.

As well as claims of looting by pershmerga, Kurds are also being accused of taking over positions of power in the city. An official from the Turkoman Front, who wanted to remain anonymous, said only Kurdish employees were being hired by government and financial institutions. “The needs of Turkoman citizens are being neglected as a result,” he claimed.

For Salayee, these allegations at least are easy to concretely disprove. “All you have to do is look at the figures. There are seven electricity directorates, five of the directors are Turkomans, one is Arab and the other is a Kurd who isn’t even affiliated to any political party. There are 13 banks in the city, only one is managed by a Kurd. Of the 11,000 staff members at the oil ministry in Kirkuk, only around 200 are Kurds. Now tell me where the imbalance is.”

For the majority of local residents, it is the political parties themselves that are to blame for the rise in ethnic tensions. Sirwan Abbas lives in Tis’een but is an ethnic Kurd. He knows that many of his neighbours claim the Kurds are trying to oppress them. “I feel that the Turkoman political parties are behind this. They’re looking to gain the support and loyalty of the Arabs who were settled here,” he said.

Ardal Khalid who owns an electricity-spares shop in Tis’een, is an ethnic Turkomen. He agrees that political agitation has played a large part in the recent unrest. “All the difficulties have been created by Kurds who aren’t from here. As soon as they leave, things will go back to normal. But mostly I blame all the different political parties for widening the ethnic divisions rather than working for the good of the city as a whole,” he said.

The political parties, naturally, blame each other for the tensions. “Before the liberation of Kirkuk there was a good balance here. The problem lies with the politics of the Kurdish parties – they just have a negative attitude towards us,” said Ali Mahdi, a member of the governorate council and deputy head of the Turkoman Elley Party.

PUK’s Salayee counters, “Of course all ethnic groups have the right to live in this city. But certain parties are not being very friendly towards the Kurds. Some of the Turkoman parties are actively trying to destabilise the situation.”

Ya’qoob Al-Amir, an ethnic Arab and head of a pro-peace organisation, wants to see political leaders taking a more active role in solving the current problems. But he admits the low-level incitement may already have gone too far, “The politicians may have started it, but now it’s the citizens themselves who are creating problems when they cross each other on the streets.”

Dana Asaad Muhammed is an IWPR trainee.

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