Soldier at a checkpoint in Kirkuk. Photo:Getty Images
The idea was first mooted by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki: the establishment of a new military command centre in the disputed territory of Kirkuk in northern Iraq. To be opened on Sept. 1, the command centre would be located to the west of the city in the Kiwan area on the Kirkuk-Huwaija road, near the airport.
The idea caused consternation among locals and was widely opposed. Kirkuk is among the “disputed territories” of Iraq. Mosul, Kirkuk and other parts of the state of Ninawa are what are best described as Iraq’s disputed territories. That is, despite the fact that Kirkuk is outside the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdish say they have historic rights to the city, while the government in Baghdad disputes this.
In reality though, it is unclear who is in charge in these disputed territories. Kurdish armed forces control some areas while Iraq’s federal troops control others. Formerly US troops stationed here were seen as a buffer between the two groups and recently there’s been a delicate balance, complete with lack of open confrontation. Officially security is supposed to be the duty of local police and local military together with some Kurdish units. All of which is why the addition of a whole new military force is so controversial.
The new Tigris command centre was to be made up of Kirkuk’s own 12th division and Diyala’s 5th division, which would see a total of 30,000 troops in the area under the leadership of the current commander in Diyala, Abdul Amir al-Zaidi. Controversially al-Zaidi has recently been accused of having taken part in Saddam Hussein’s genocidal campaign against the Kurdish people, where hundreds of thousands were killed; if this is true, it makes his appointment particularly jarring.
Additionally, according to official documents sighted by NIQASH, the government order to establish the new command centre gives it the force federal authority - that is the local government and local governor would have no power over them.
But as September and the official opening of the new command post approached, high ranking Kurdish officials became overtly critical of the plan, calling it a conspiracy by Baghdad to take control of Kurdish areas. In fact, word had it that elder Kurdish statesman, Jalal al-Talabani had asked al-Maliki not to go any further with this plan until things became clearer.
In fact, local Kurdish politicians thought they had been successful in getting the opening of the centre postponed. However they turned out to be wrong: on Sept. 1, the centre was opened – even though the city’s Kurdish governor, Najm al-Din Karim ordered security staff to stay away and high ranking officials in the Kurdish armed forces were still denying the new command centre was operational. There was apparently no official inauguration ceremony.
The new force is headquartered at Kirkuk airport and when NIQASH went by to see how much was going on there, the most that could be seen was a sign saying: “Tigris Command Centre”. Security staff nearby would not allow any pictures to be taken of the sign, claiming this was a militarily sensitive issue.
In 2003, Kirkuk’s airport became a US military base. Then at the end of 2011 it was handed back to Iraq. At the time, it was announced that the airport would be transformed into a civilian facility. Which is another reason why local officials are so upset: “We won’t accept any attempt to turn the airport into a military one,” says Ahmed al-Askari, a Kurdish member of the provincial council. “Al-Maliki promised us this would become a civilian airport. He can’t just change his mind.”
And Kurdish politicians say this new force means that the Kurdish will lose even more control over areas they believe belong to them.
“The formation of this Tigris command centre creates an imbalance of power in the city,” Kurdish MP, Khalid Shawani, argued. “Basically the Iraqi Prime Minister is putting the military in the middle of what is a political conflict. And their presence weakens the Kurdish position.”
The other side of the argument is presented by local Arab politicians, who see the new Iraqi forces as a positive addition. “After the withdrawal of US troops and the various attacks in the city, the new Tigris command centre is an important step towards protecting the lives of local citizens,” Burhan al-Asi says. “There’s a security vacuum in Kirkuk and we need a military force capable of filling it. That’s why we support this new command centre.”
Somewhere in the middle are the Turkmen, a significant ethnic minority in Kirkuk. “Kirkuk needs a national force to protect it and its population. But we don’t want the presence of military forces from either Kurdistan or Baghdad,” says Najat Hussein, a Turkman politician who sits on the provincial council. “We want Kirkuk to be protected by forces mustered from within the city – so that they don’t become part of this existing conflict.”
Currently it seems that the only thing that is clear is tensions are now running high. As local political analyst, Ihsan Najm ad-Din, says: “Kirkuk’s problems around its status cannot be resolved by a military approach. These must be solved by dialogue and understanding. The regional and central powers—that-be are hiding their failures to resolve anything by taking this military approach. It’s a fatal mistake,” he concludes, “and it is the duty of political powers in Kirkuk not to get dragged into this game.”