It seems that the authorities in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk have run out of ideas when it comes to bringing security and peace to the troubled city. So they’ve decided to build a moat around the city.
Kirkuk is one of Iraq’s “disputed territories” – which means that, despite the fact that Kirkuk is outside the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, the Iraqi Kurdish say they have historic rights to the city. But the national government in Baghdad disputes this, saying that 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 in the city make it one of Iraq’s most dangerous places.
So around three months ago the Kirkuk council decided to dig a trench around the city as another form of defence against extremist attacks.
“The decision was a majority decision and it was done in order to protect Kirkuk against violence and to end the ongoing insecurity here,” says Ahmed al-Askari, a Kurdish member of the provincial council and head of the security committee.
The decision was not without controversy. Kirkuk’s council has both Arab and Iraqi Kurdish politicians on it and Arab members, who hold six out of 41 seats on the council, didn’t like the idea at all.
This is because the moat, located in the south of Kirkuk, effectively isolates certain Arab districts like Hawija, Zab and Yayji, from the rest of the city. The Arab council members say this forced isolation is the main motive behind the trench and that it is yet another attempt by the Iraqi Kurdish to change the area’s demography – to make the city more Kurdish than Arab, if you like.
Despite opposition to the idea, digging started and according to sources approached by NIQASH, over half of the work has been completed. The rest is due to be completed by the end of the year. The trench takes the form of a semi circle, is around three meters wide, two metres deep and around 52 kilometres long. The earth dug up from inside the trench is also being used to create a barrier along its length and there are four “bridges” across the trench, which can be used and controlled by security forces.
There will also be four watch towers with surveillance cameras as well as plenty of security staff. And the whole project is estimated to be costing around IQD3.3 billion (US$3 million).
Those who support the project say that most of the car bombs used in the city are thought to enter Kirkuk from the south – this is because it’s so difficult to control such a large area and armed groups can freely move around here.
Not everyone agrees. Hussein al-Jibouri, who heads the Hawija district council, says he doesn’t think that car bombs are coming from the south. In fact, he says the southern areas have far fewer bombings and extremist attacks than other parts of the Kirkuk district.
"This project will only increase tensions between the different components living in Kirkuk,” says al-Jibouri, who also subscribes to the theory that the only objective of those building the moat is to isolate the Arab districts. “That’s why we’re trying to stop the project in any way we can.”
A number of local Arab community leaders actually met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and asked that he intervene to stop the trench being built. The result was that the Prime Minister sent a letter demanding that the trench building cease; it was ignored by local authorities.
The controversial local security force, the Tigris Operations Command, is also opposed to the trench because they say it hinders their forces’ movement. And they have requested work stop more than once.
A senior Iraqi officer, who spoke to NIQASH anonymously, said the Tigris Operations Command has already stopped excavation work three times. “The trench was being drilled within the boundaries of the area that they control and they wouldn’t allow it to go ahead without their permission,” the officer said. Initially this caused problems between the local police force and the army but these were apparently resolved.
Despite all of these objections, Kirkuk’s governor, Iraqi Kurdish politician Najm al-Din Karim, is set on finishing the trench. He issued a statement a few days before work started on the trench saying that he and al-Maliki had talked about it and agreed that the project should go ahead. Al-Din Karim has since visited the site many times.
Whether al-Din Karim is right to have faith in the trench cannot be ascertained until the project is completed. Many locals don’t think that too much will change though: they suspect that, as has happened before, Kirkuk will continue to lurch from one security measure to another with those who would do the city’s people violence simply altering their tactics to suit.