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ethnic barriers
security trench between erbil and kirkuk inflames tensions

Shalaw Mohammed
Authorities in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil are extending a security trench and digging an even bigger moat between themselves and troubled Kirkuk. But politicians in Kirkuk say the move is more than defensive,…
8.05.2014  |  Kirkuk

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Since the idea was first mooted it has been a controversial one: A trench that acts as a security barrier between various areas in northern of Iraq where political and ethnic tensions are common. A security trench being dug in Kirkuk has already caused much debate, as has one in Dohuk. Now, a trench being extended by Iraqi Kurdish authorities in Erbil is also causing complaints.

In February 2004, after two extremist bomb attacks were carried out in Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, authorities decided that digging a security trench would help prevent more attackers from getting into the area. After another bombing was carried out in Erbil last year, in September 2013, the decision was made to extend the trench from 35 kilometres to 200, in an effort to isolate the western and southern borders of the region – namely to block extremists from entering from the troubled provinces of Ninawa or Kirkuk.

The trench is two metres deep and three meters wide and it is being dug adjacent to main roads. A senior security source told NIQASH that once the trench is finished, there will be a force of about 6,000 guarding the security barrier and checkpoints will be built every 250 meters along it, including 250 watch towers.

As the trench started to be dug, authorities in Kirkuk were already describing it as “shameful” and “a plot to isolate Kirkuk”.

Kirkuk is one of Iraq’s disputed territories – that is, the Iraqi Kurdish say they have historic rights to it while the national government in Baghdad says Kirkuk is part of Iraq proper. In reality though, it is unclear who is in charge, with Iraqi Kurdish armed forces controlling some areas while Iraq’s federal troops control others. The mixture of political disputes, militias and different ethnicities make this one of Iraq’s most dangerous places.

While the whole project was already extremely contentious, recent election results have made it even more so. At the same time that the rest of Iraq held general elections, Iraqi Kurdistan also held its first provincial elections in eight years.

The elections were one of the last chances for Iraqi Kurdish political party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, to prove they are still a popular force to be reckoned with in the northern area.

Now some are suggesting that the trench is not only related to security concerns, it also has to do with political games.

Since 2003, the most powerful political party in Kirkuk has been the PUK. Up until relatively recently this Iraqi Kurdish party was the second most powerful in the neighbouring autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, which has its own military, legislation and parliament. The most powerful was – and still is – the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP.

However in Kirkuk, the PUK has always been the most popular while the KDP has often barely been able to get a look in. Which is why authorities in Kirkuk – who are mainly PUK – are saying that the KDP-oriented authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan no longer want Kirkuk to be considered part of Iraqi Kurdistan. Because if it is, it gives the PUK more terrain and thus more power in Iraqi Kurdistan – something, critics say, the KDP wants to avoid.

The security trench as a physical manifestation of those political intentions, they say.

“The Hawija trench is already being dug to prevent terrorists getting in and to keep the area secure,” Kirkuk’s governor, Iraqi Kurdish politician Najm al-Din Karim, told NIQASH. “So there is no need to dig another trench. It doesn’t serve any purpose. And it’s going to isolate Kirkuk from Iraqi Kurdistan. It has a political aim.”

Because the problem of who Kirkuk actually belongs to – is it Iraqi Kurdish or Iraqi Arab? – has never been solved, the Iraqi Kurdish in the region fear that any further separation will see Kirkuk drift back toward the Arab side.

Some analysts have also suggested that, if Iraqi Kurdistan does try to gain even more independence from Baghdad, giving up their claim to Kirkuk might be part of that.

“We have asked the Iraqi Kurdish government to better explain why they need this trench,” Ahmed Askari, an Iraqi Kurdish member of the provincial council and head of the security committee, told NIQASH. “Because along with the ethnic issue around the disputed territories the trench is also harmful to agricultural property in this area.”

It is not just Askari who is concerned. Almost all the Iraqi Kurdish political parties in Kirkuk have objections to the security trench – with the telling exception of those in the Kirkuk branch of the KDP.

Meanwhile authorities in Erbil insist that this is all part of a plan to secure the region that was developed ten years earlier. And the plan to extend the trench toward Kirkuk was the result of the extremist attacks in Erbil late last year. In fact, work started on the project three months ago but politicians only began to oppose it during recent election campaigns.

“The circular trench around Erbil was dug ten years ago and work on the extensions started three months ago,” Erbil’s governor, Nawzad Hadi, told NIQASH. “Political parties are only now talking about the trench because they are trying to inflame ethnic tensions in Kirkuk in order to make them hate the authorities in Erbil.”

Hadi said that, despite objections from Kirkuk’s authorities and even from some politicians in Iraqi Kurdistan’s other major city, Sulaymaniyah – which is also mostly PUK territory – that the building of the trench would go ahead.