The government of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan has long wanted to control the city of Kirkuk and its surrounds. They say it was originally a city dominated by locals of the Kurdish ethnicity and that it should be theirs once again. After years of legal and political wrangling with the Iraqi government in Baghdad, the arrival of Sunni Muslim extremists in areas around Kirkuk has finally seen the Iraqi Kurdish achieve this goal.
As the Iraqi army fled, the Iraqi Kurdish military entered. And now the Iraqi Kurdish are cementing their hold on the long-disputed area even further; a week ago the Iraqi Kurdish parliament opened their first official premises in Kirkuk city.
Other locals who are not Kurdish – local Turkmen and Arabs - protested the opening of the facility, saying it was unconstitutional. However the Iraqi Kurdish government seems to have ignored this and work is already going on inside the large office building.
But this is really only the latest step in what may best be described as a kind of silent war of political one-upmanship inside Kirkuk.
In July, Iraqi Kurdish military forces – the semi-autonomous region operates relatively independently of Baghdad and has its own parliament, borders, legislative system and military – took control of facilities at the important Bai Hassan oil field near Kirkuk.
AS the Wall Street Journal reported: “Kurdish Peshmerga forces accompanied by a number of civilians took control of the Kirkuk and Bai Hassan oil fields at dawn Friday, expelling employees of Iraq's Northern Oil Co”.
After meeting with the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, in June, the President of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud al-Barzani, told reporters that the article of the Iraqi Constitution that was supposed to resolve problems between the Iraq’s Kurds and Arabs over Kirkuk had finally been implemented – albeit by circumstances. There would be no more discussion of Article 140, Barzani said, there was no need.
"We have been patient for 10 years with the federal government to solve the problems of these [disputed] areas," Barzani said at a joint press conference held with Hague in Erbil. “Article 140 has been completed for us, and we will not talk about it anymore."
“Opening this office here is to prove the Kurdish identity of Kirkuk and it should have taken place long ago,” the Speaker of the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament, Yusuf Mohammed, said during the opening of the Kirkuk office.“This is to become a bridge between Kirkuk and the Kurdistan Regional Government.”
However obviously not everybody is happy about that. Non-Kurdish locals have already protested the office’s opening – even though they couldn’t protest quite as loudly because Kirkuk’s external borders are surrounded by extremists and the internal territory is dominated by Iraqi Kurdish military. There have also been well publicised rumours that the Turkmen in the area have been doing secret, politically expedient deals to share power with the Iraqi Kurdish, which splits them from local Arabs.
And some now fear that such bullying tactics by the Iraqi Kurdish government may end up causing even worse conflict between the Iraqi Kurdish and the government in Baghdad, should they manage to vanquish their common enemy, the Islamic State group.
In September, Iraqi military forces cooperating with unofficial Shiite Muslim militias managed to expel the IS group from some of the areas surrounding Kirkuk. The aim of the offensive was to open the Kirkuk-Baghdad road.
The Shiite Muslim-dominated Badr organization, a militia connected with the political party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, had helped make the campaign a success. And the organization’s leader, Hadi al-Amiri, visited Kirkuk at the beginning of September.
During his visit he firmly stated that Iraqi Kurdish military shouldn’t be in the area or controlling it. “We won’t allow the Iraqi Kurdish forces to remain here without coordinating with the Iraqi army,” al-Amiri stated at a press conference.
While some Iraqi Kurdish politicians replied by insisting they were only in Kirkuk temporarily, many fear moves such an opening a government office in the city and controlling the local oil fields, may mean that eventually this “silent war” will become a more open and dangerous conflict.