October 02, 2023

Iraq’s persistent fault line: The dangers of escalating tensions in Kirkuk

For the past century, Kirkuk has been the site of ethnic tension. Particularly since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, control of the disputed oil-rich province – which is populated by Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen – has been one of the country’s most contentious and destabilising issues. The semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, led by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), asserts that Kirkuk should be part of its jurisdiction and claimed de facto control from 2014 to 2017. Meanwhile, the Iraqi constitution stipulates that Kirkuk’s status will be determined by a referendum after a census is held – but this is yet to happen. Instead, after the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s (KDP) failed independence referendum in September 2017, the central government placed Kirkuk under its direct control.

While Kirkuk remains contested, risks of destabilisation will continue to hang over Iraq and the Sudani government.

But hostilities have recently escalated following a shock decision last month by Iraqi prime minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani to allow the KDP to resume control of their political offices and military base in Kirkuk city. Sudani’s decision sparked protests from Arab and Turkmen residents, which, in turn, led to counter-protests by Kurdish residents. Four people were killed in the unrest, prompting the Federal Supreme Court to pause its implementation. These events underscore the risks of Kirkuk’s unresolved status, which could be exacerbated by upcoming provincial elections in December and spread tensions to neighbouring Turkey and Iran – who have Kurdish populations – further heightening regional instability.

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