Disputed Iraqi Kirkuk province hopes for
US to stay
May 6, 2011
KIRKUK, Iraq's border with Kurdistan region,
— With tensions still high in the oil-rich
ethnically mixed province of Kirkuk, some local
officials are voicing support for a US Army presence
here beyond a planned year-end pullout.
The flashpoint province in north Iraq sits at the
centre of a major row between Kurdish regional
authorities in Erbil and the central government in
Baghdad, with insurgent groups exploiting the
fissures to carry out attacks.
US military officials have persistently labelled the
dispute as one of the biggest long-term challenges
to stability in Iraq.
Violence remains high in the area, with bombings,
targeted killings, and
Disputed Iraqi Kirkuk province hopes for US to stay.
even shootouts between Arab Iraqi soldiers and
Kurdish security officers occurring in the past
"Al-Qaeda is trying to destabilise the situation in
Kirkuk, targeting the different ethnic groups,
fanning sectarianism," provincial deputy police
chief Major General Torhan Yusuf Abdulrahman told
"Despite their differences, local political leaders
all believe that it is necessary to maintain
American forces in Kirkuk to help resolve problems."
In a bid to build trust between the two parallel
forces -- Iraq's army and Kurdish regional forces
known as peshmerga -- US forces have since January
2010 taken part in what is called the combined
The project involves 1,200 American troops manning
joint checkpoints and taking part in joint patrols
with soldiers from both sides at key locations in
four provinces in north Iraq, including 300 soldiers
for Kirkuk alone, according to Colonel Barry
Johnson, a US military spokesman.
But with all 45,000 American troops in Iraq due to
withdraw from the country at the end of the year
under the terms of a bilateral security pact, one
senior Iraqi security official has labelled the
pullout a "grave threat" for Kirkuk.
"The Americans are a source of confidence," said the
official in Kirkuk, who spoke on condition of
"Everyone looks to them to resolve problems related
to the security forces, and political conflicts."
Any continued presence of US forces in Iraq beyond
2011, however, would require a request to be made by
Baghdad to Washington, Johnson noted.
No such request has yet been submitted, despite
several senior US civilian and military leaders
having visited Iraq last month to press Baghdad to
decide, and no major Iraqi leader has yet publicly
voiced support for a longer-term American presence.
The dispute between Baghdad and Erbil has its roots
in ex-dictator Saddam Hussein's arabisation policy
of the early 1990s, which forced around 120,000
Kurds out of Kirkuk and into Iraqi Kurdistan's
to New York-based Human Rights Watch.
That was partly reversed following Saddam's ouster
in the 2003 US-led invasion, when peshmerga forces
progressed south and east, claiming Kirkuk and parts
of the northern and central provinces of Nineveh,
Diyala and Salaheddin.
Since then, the two camps have accused each other of
seeking to change the demographic balance in the
provinces in order to secure their oil wealth, with
the tensions occasionally spilling over.
On April 25, for example, two Kurdish security
officers died and four people were wounded in
clashes between Iraqi soldiers and Kurdish forces in
the province's eponymous capital.
Senior security leaders quickly insisted in the
aftermath of the shootings, though, that they were
accidental and did not equate to a conflict between
Arab Iraqi forces and their Kurdish counterparts.
Attacks also remain common in the province, despite
violence levels having fallen from their peak in
2006 and 2007, with two guards of a local police
chief having been killed in a bomb attack on
The situation remains "fragile," according to
provincial council chief Hassan Toran, a Turkman who
says the size of the provincial police force is
insufficient to help secure the area.
While Kirkuk is one of the few provinces in Iraq
where the police rather than the army take primary
responsibility for security, its 11,300-strong force
has a shortfall of at least 3,500, according to a
In that context, the withdrawal of US forces is a
"great challenge," according to Kirkuk's Chaldean
bishop Louis Sako.
"It will leave a vacuum that we need to fill with
harmony and reconciliation," he said.
The oil-rich province of Kirkuk is one of the most disputed areas by the
regional government and the Iraqi government in Baghdad.
The Kurds are seeking to integrate the province into the semi-autonomous
Kurdistan Region clamming it to be historically a Kurdish city, it lies just
south border of the Kurdistan autonomous region, the population is a mix of
majority Kurds and minority of Arabs, Christians and Turkmen, lies 250 km
northeast of Baghdad. Kurds have a strong cultural and emotional
attachment to Kirkuk, which they call "the Kurdish
Jerusalem." Kurds see it as the rightful and
perfect capital of an autonomous Kurdistan state.
Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution is related to
the normalization of the situation in Kirkuk city
and other disputed areas through having back its
Kurdish inhabitants and repatriating the Arabs
relocated in the city during the former regime’s
time to their original provinces in central and
The article also calls for conducting a census to be
followed by a referendum to let the inhabitants
decide whether they would like Kirkuk to be annexed
to the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region or having
it as an independent province.
The former regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein
had forced over 250,000 Kurdish residents to give up
their homes to Arabs in the 1970s, to "Arabize" the
city and the region's oil industry.
The last ethnic-breakdown census in Iraq was
conducted in 1957, well before Saddam began his
program to move Arabs to Kirkuk. That count showed
178,000 Kurds, 48,000 Turkomen, 43,000 Arabs and
10,000 Assyrian-Chaldean Christians living in the
In an effort to promote cooperation between Arab and
Kurdish security forces along the disputed territory
of which Kirkuk is at the centre, the US military
began conducting tripartite patrols and running
joint checkpoints with the two sides at the start of
Those efforts will conclude when US forces withdraw
from the country by the end of this year, according
to a bilateral security pact with Iraq.
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