According to the results of Iraq’s 2014 general elections, Kirkuk already belonged to the Iraqi Kurds. For years, the northern city has been one of Iraq’s “disputed territories” – that is, the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan felt the city should be part of their area while the Iraqi government in Baghdad believed it was part of Iraq proper. The ethnic group, Turkmen, also insist that they have strong rights to the city.
Recently the Iraqi Kurds claimed the city: As Sunni Muslim extremists took control of the nearby city of Mosul, the Iraqi army retreated. They also left their posts in Kirkuk and the Iraqi Kurdish military took their place, and control of the area they had disputed for so long. They were filling the “security vacuum” they said and protecting the Iraqi Kurdish population in the city, among the others.
Yet in a political sense, the city was already theirs. The April 30 general elections saw the Iraqi Kurds win eight out of the province’s 12 seats. At the elections, the two largest political parties from Iraqi Kurdistan – the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK – increased the number of seats they had there. The KDP got two seats and the PUK, six.
And now the Iraqi Kurdish military are consolidating that political win with military force. Although military officials will not reveal the exact number of Iraqi Kurdish troops in Kirkuk, there is no doubt that there are a lot of them and that they have no intentions to leave anytime soon. The main army bases in Kiwan and Tal al-Ward are now under the control of Iraqi Kurdish forces as are other areas of Kirkuk.
“The Iraqi army, which had been in charge of security, here failed,” Shirko Fateh, the commander of the Iraqi Kurdish forces in Kirkuk, told NIQASH. “That is why we came here and that is why we are not yet ready to hand the city back to the army. By being here, we can guarantee stability across this province.”
“We are coordinating with the Iraqi Kurdish military to stop ISIS advancing,” agrees Sarhad Qadir, Kirkuk's police chief, who is also Kurdish. “We consider their presence here crucial. The withdrawal of the Iraqi army caused a security vacuum and it was important to replace them.”
Not everyone is pleased by the presence of the Iraqi Kurdish armed forces though.
“By using their military to pressure us, the Kurds have tightened their grip on Kirkuk,” complains senior Turkmen politician, Arshad al-Salihi. “It is part of their grand plan to annex Kirkuk to their own region. And that is unacceptable to the Turkmen. Our political and social life cannot continue if the Iraqi Kurdish military are present.”
“The presence of the Iraqi Kurdish military in the disputed territories cannot help but deepen conflicts between the various different ethnic groups who lay claim to it,” Qassim Atta, official spokesman for the Iraqi army command, told NIQASH. “What we need is a centre for coordination between the Iraqi army and the Iraqi Kurdish military, so that we can confront armed extremists together.”
Atta admitted that he was well aware that the Iraqi Kurdish would not want to withdraw from Kirkuk or other disputed territories, even when the situation became calmer.
Inside Kirkuk, local analysts feel the same: They believe that the Iraqi army’s reputation and people’s trust in them has been badly damaged and that the Iraqi Kurdish presence will be an ongoing reality.
Local security analyst Ahmad Aziz suggests that if the Iraqi Kurdish forces provide security and stability, than sooner or later other ethnic groups will come to accept their presence in the city.
“At the moment it already seems like other parties are willing to accept this reality on the ground,” he says, referring to the Iraqi army. “I think the Iraqi Kurdish military will probably be here for a long time.”