In Northern Iraq, Where A Re-Opened Bridge Is About Much More Than Just A-To-B
A Kirkuk bridge destroyed during the October face-off between Iraqi and Kurdish troops has been re-opened. In practical terms, it’s positive. But in terms of symbolism and politics, it’s seen by some as a bad sign.
On October 16 last year, Iraqi Kurdish military forces were determined to stop the advance of the Iraqi army, as they approached the disputed city of Kirkuk. The potential clash between the two forces, both of which are ostensibly part of the same nation’s military, had come about because of the ill-fated and much-disputed Kurdish referendum on seceding from the rest of the country.
The ensuing reactions led to clashes between Iraqi Kurdish and Iraqi soldiers, as well as civilians, and several deaths – and a potential stand-off in Alton Kobri, 35 kilometres northwest of Kirkuk city. It was here that a bridge, on the main road between the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, Erbil, and Kirkuk was blown up to impede further progress.
Kirkuk has long been what is known as a “disputed territory” – that is, the Iraqi government believes it is part of Iraq while the Kurdish believe it should be part of their semi-autonomous, northern region. Before the referendum, the Kurdish had been in most control of security in Kirkuk.
All of these checkpoints are an indication that Kirkuk is no longer as much a part of Iraqi Kurdistan as it was.
The post-referendum situation in October 2017 was eventually resolved – but the bridge has remained a victim of the conflict since then. Almost a year later – 315 days – the two sides have decided what to do about the destroyed conduit. Travelling between the two provinces had been complicated ever since. Journeys that once took a short time now take hours, as detours are required.
On August 19 this year, shortly before the Eid holiday, the Iraqi government and the Kurdish authorities decided to open a temporary steel bridge, at the cost of about $180,000, in the area while the old bridge undergoes repairs. A source inside the Kirkuk police says that apparently the two sides couldn’t agree on who should pay to repair the old bridge. Both sides were supposed to contribute a billion Iraqi dinars (around $830,000) to repair the entire road, after the temporary bridge was opened mid-August.
“The bridge can only accommodate small cars at the moment,” Abdul Khaliq Talat, Erbil's police chief, told NIQASH. “According to our plans, we will need around six months to complete the repairs. The Kirkuk traffic department is responsible for this job.”
One of the points upon which local and federal authorities could not agree was where to locate the checkpoints, where soldiers search cars for explosives or other contraband, as they move between provinces. In the end the authorities decided to set up just one checkpoint, with the regional and federal military staff manning it separated by a concrete blast wall. A senior member of the Iraqi federal police has already stated that no other military personnel can be at this checkpoint except the Iraqi army and the Kurdish police.
This means if somebody from Erbil wants to visit Kirkuk, the Kurdish police or soldiers will search the vehicle and if somebody from Kirkuk wants to visit Erbil, then the Iraqi forces will search it. Locals have started joking about their very own “Berlin wall.”
There are also two checkpoints to take care of customs, as the route is important for traders travelling between the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan which has its own de-facto borders, and the rest of the country. These two checkpoints on the Kirkuk-Erbil road and the Kirkuk-Sulaymaniyah road will start work toward the end of August.
“There are going to be two customs checkpoints,” confirms Jamal Mawloud, a member of Kirkuk’s provincial council. “But the provincial council has yet to be informed about the details.”
Mawloud is pleased about the road re-opening. “It’s going to revive tourism and ease the transport of commercial goods,” he enthuses.
Iraqi Kurdish soldiers on the Kirkuk road.
The impact of the re-opening of this route is already clear: It’s thought that more than 19,000 people used it to travel into Erbil province on the first day of the recent religious holiday, Eid al-Adha.
Some say the route is about more than that too: It’s also symbolic of the evolution of the relationship between Iraqi Kurdistan and Baghdad since last October. “The regional government tried to rebel against the central government and in doing so, it blew up this bridge,” says Ibrahim Fahmi, who is preparing his thesis on the subject of the impact of those events on Kirkuk’s identity. “The fact that an initiative has been undertaken to repair this road means that the Kurdish government is ready to return to Baghdad and to re-build their political relationship.”
The reopening of the road has become a hot topic for debate among locals, Fahmi notes. Some see it as an indication that the largest Kurdish political party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, plans to return to Kirkuk. But their political opponents see it as the failure of that party to get what it wanted (the KDP being prime movers behind the referendum on independence).
Some Kurdish locals in the city, with its mixed population, are happy to be reconnected with Erbil.
For example: Aram al-Mulla Ali, a student who had been studying physical education in Kirkuk. He left for Erbil last October because of concerns about what would happen in the disputed city in the future. “But with the repair of the bridge and the return of Kurdish forces to the district, we are confident that we can return to our homes in Kirkuk with dignity,” he told NIQASH.
But others say that having all of these checkpoints and security barriers on the road are an indication that the disputed city is no longer as much a part of Iraqi Kurdistan as it was before last October.
“Kurdish authorities have now abandoned the idea of building an independent Kurdish state and that’s why they have accepted the reopening of this route,” goes the argument there.
“This has officially drawn the borders of the Kurdish region,” Taher Shakur, a senior member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, based in Kirkuk, wrote on his Facebook page; his party is the other major political force in Iraqi Kurdistan and is often critical of the KDP, particularly when it comes to the aftermath of the referendum. “Kirkuk has been sold forever,” he complained.