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Caught In The Crossfire?
In Kirkuk, Civilian Deaths Raise Local Ire And Endanger Iraqi Troops

Shalaw Mohammed
A number of apparently accidental civilian deaths in Kirkuk are causing antipathy toward the Iraqi troops that currently control the city. But local politicians can’t seem to agree on what to do about it.
28.06.2018  |  Kirkuk
Iraqi army forces advancing toward the center of Kirkuk last October. (photo: احمد الربيعي)
Iraqi army forces advancing toward the center of Kirkuk last October. (photo: احمد الربيعي)

In Kirkuk, on June 16, a hand grenade was thrown from a vehicle at another vehicle: the target was an Iraqi army Hummer parked outside an office that is now used by the Iraqi counter-terrorism forces based in Kirkuk. The perpetrator remains unknown. The base used to be the headquarters of one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s most popular political parties the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP. But since last October, when Iraqi forces pushed Kurdish military out of the area, it has been occupied by the Iraqi army.

During the incident, a 65-year old local woman was killed and three other locals were wounded. The elderly woman’s family say it was the Iraqi army that killed her. 

The acting governor of Kirkuk should be the one asking these questions though. Up until now he has said nothing.

There has been a bit of this about in Kirkuk lately. A month ago, during a celebration held by supporters of another of Iraqi Kurdistan’s biggest political parties – the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK – there was some heavy gunfire. After the shooting, a five-year-old boy, Harim Ghambar, was dead. The youngster’s family also accused the Iraqi military of killing the child. 

The child’s father, Ghambar Mohammed,   said he was heading toward the PUK festivities near the Kirkuk citadel but counter-terrorism forces in the Shorja neighbourhood stopped them from going any further. “We argued with them and they allowed us to pass,” Mohammed said. “But then somebody started firing and we were caught in a  hail of bullets. I was injured and my son was killed.”

Mohammed said he was trying to find out who was responsible and have them brought to justice but that he did not hold out much hope for seeing his son’s killer punished.

The son of the older woman who was killed told NIQASH a similar story. “If there was rule of law in Iraq, then the killers of a 65-year-old woman and a 5-year-old child would be punished,” said the man, who did not wish to be named in the media. “But here there is no rule of law and it is the counter-terrorism forces who have the ultimate power in Kirkuk.”

The two deaths have aroused a lot of anti-Iraqi-army sentiment in Kirkuk.

The Iraqi military responded with an official statement in which they said that the woman had been killed by those who fired their guns at the Iraqi military, not by the military themselves.

“The Iraqi counter-terrorism forces, based on the Kirkuk-Erbil road, were attacked with hand grenades, thrown from a passing car,” the statement attributed to senior Iraqi army officer, Maan al-Saadi, who is in charge of the counter-terrorism forces, said. “Our headquarters opened fire and three of our men were wounded. During the attack, a family was present in the area and was unfortunately caught in the cross fire.”

“We have asked Baghdad to form a committee to investigate this,” Ribwar Taha, an MP and head of the PUK delegation in Kirkuk, told NIQASH. “We are still waiting for the results of the investigation. The acting governor of Kirkuk should be the one asking these questions though,” Taha argued. “Up until now he has said nothing.”

The office of the acting governor, Arab politician, Rakan Saeed al-Jibouri, did not respond to enquiries.

To try and resolve this problem, and other similar ones, the PUK has asked that a joint military force be formed in Kirkuk. Previously the Iraqi Kurdish forces had been in control of security in this area – and this is despite the fact that Kirkuk is what is known as one of Iraq’s disputed territories. That is, the Iraqi government in Baghdad believes it belongs to Iraq, whereas the Iraqi Kurdish authorities, in the nearby semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, think that Kirkuk should be part of their area. Until the ill-fated Kurdish referendum on independence last September, most of Kirkuk had been under de-factor Kurdish control. After October, when the Iraqi government pushed back against the Kurdish, the Iraqi military took over.

A number of problems have resulted. Some locals believe that the Iraqi military stationed here now don’t have enough good intelligence about the activities of extremists in the area. Additionally, when there are incidents such as the recent civilian deaths, they often become political because of the mixed nature of the population here. Kirkuk is home to significant numbers of Kurds, Arabs, Turkmans, Kakais, Christians, Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Due to its status as disputed, and due to demographics, Kirkuk is often described as a tinderbox for Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian tensions.

That is why the PUK believes a military force that features members of each demographic subgroup would be helpful. They would like to see Iraqi Kurdish and Arabs working together, in the army and the police, coordinating through a central operations room.

“The killing and kidnapping of civilians in Kirkuk, as well as demographic change, are on the rise,” Mohammed Othman, a PUK MP, wrote in a letter to senior members of the acting Iraqi government. “If this situation is not addressed, then fear and anxiety will only increase in the province. That’s why we want a joint force: To prevent bloodshed in Kirkuk.”

Not everyone in Kirkuk agrees though. Mohammed Khader, an Arab politician in the provincial government, says he and his colleagues don’t want a joint force. “We will only accept that when the Iraqi government classifies the Kurdish military as part of the national troops and agrees to allow them in the city,” he explained, referring to the fact that the Iraqi Kurdish military – known as the Peshmerga – mostly act in Kurdish interests, rather than national ones.

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