KIRKUK, IRAQ —
In Kirkuk, it appears competing claims to the divided Iraqi city are being negotiated with flags. And at the moment, the Kurdish side is winning.
But in recent weeks, flags signaling Iraq's claim have been showing up more and more. They're not government flags, though, but Shia Islam banners, a nod to the sect dominant among leaders in Baghdad and their supporters.
Kirkuk residents seem largely relieved the competition is confined to pieces of cloth, after weeks of warnings the referendum on Kurdish independence from Iraq could lead to outbreaks of violence in areas claimed by both Baghdad and the semi-autonomous Kurdish government. Kirkuk is partially governed by Baghdad, but the city is secured primarily by Kurdish Peshmerga forces.
Sunday’s referendum for Kurdish Independence from Iraq, deemed illegal by Baghdad, passed on Wednesday, with approval nearing 93 percent, and a voter turnout of 72 percent.
Baghdad continues to extend threats against the Kurdish Regional Government, and many people say even if threats are not carried out, they have already raised tensions, which could spiral into ethnic conflict.
“People are still scared something will happen,” says Khalid Mohammad, 48, in his Kirkuk grocery store. “I'm afraid the Shia militias will come into the city and fight with Kurdish Peshmerga forces.”
Threats and closures
Immediately after the referendum, reports surfaced that Hashd Shaaby fighters, now a formal fighting force formed from units once known as Shia militias, were ordered to deploy around disputed areas currently controlled by the Kurdish Regional Government.
Peshmerga leaders in Kirkuk say there was no military standoff immediately following the vote. The Iraqi parliament issued a statement Wednesday saying Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is “obligated” to send troops to disputed areas, including Kirkuk and its oil fields.
The statement also demanded Kurdistan surrender all border control - land and air - to federal authorities.
“Iraq will suspend international flights to & from the Kurdistan region if this order is not implemented,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi later tweeted.
Kurdish leaders have maintained their hope that threats from Baghdad and abroad are only rhetorical, an attempt to convince Kurds to abandon their plans for independence. Yet if the borders the Kurdish side claim are breached, they are also prepared to fight, says Peshmerga Colonel Hemn Hassan Salih in his base in Kirkuk.
“In the past we defended ourselves with half the amount of power we have now,” he explains. “If they want to fight, they can try. But we won’t let them into Kirkuk.”
Other Iraqi militaries, including the Iraqi Army and Federal Police remain allied with the Peshmerga and are still working together in the battle with Islamic State militants, who retain control of 500 villages and 4 cities in Iraq, according to Salih.
But banning Shia fighters from Kirkuk could later backfire, adds Hashd Shaaby Commander Zaki Muratti, at his base outside the city. His troops, he says, want to be able to move freely through Kurdish areas.
“The soldiers are busy fighting IS now,” says Muratti, “But when they are finished they may want to do something about Kurdistan.”
Kirkuk is a diverse city with Kurdish, Arab, Turkmen and Assyrian families. A decade ago, there were plans to hold a vote on if the city would remain under Baghdad’s control or officially be a part of the Kurdistan Region.
But delays and the battle with Islamic State militants prevented the ballot, and Baghdad says it won’t let go of Kirkuk now, as Kurdistan’s bid for independence remains in play.
On the streets of Kirkuk, pro-independence voters are happy to hold up their dyed fingers and pose for a picture, but minority groups are largely quiet, dreading the worst. Two men outside a grocery store say they fear that, in a country called “Kurdistan”, Turkmen like themselves would not be treated with equal rights.
Before the referendum, Kurdish authorities said ethnic minorities would all have the right to vote, but these men balked at the idea. “Why would I vote in an election that’s for a different ethnicity,” says Mohammed in his grocery store.
“I didn’t even know where my polling place was,” adds a man across the street, who doesn’t want to give his name or be photographed. “Some Arabs voted, but no Turkmen did.”
Others say they fear minorities and refugees will have to move if or when Kurdistan establishes independence, a process Kurdish authorities say could take years. On Sunday, Kurdish President Masoud Barzani said no minorities or families displaced by the IS and the Syria war will be asked to leave and they will maintain their rights. “You are not staying as our guests, because this is your home,” he said.
But outside the grocery in Kirkuk, locals are skeptical.
“They are not even a country yet and they are already waving flags around everywhere,” says one man, who did not want to give his name or be photographed. “Who knows what they will do if they are a country?”