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Kirkuk residents face uncertainty amid referendum crisis

Kirkuk residents are fearful of the security and economic consequences of the Sept. 25 independence referendum as opposition to it persists.
Iraqi SWAT troopers stand guard on a street during Kurds independence referendum in Kirkuk, Iraq September 25, 2017. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani - RC1949AF51F0
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SULAIMANIYAH, Iraqi Kurdistan — In the days leading up to Iraqi Kurdistan's Sept. 25 independence referendum, a group of politicians in Kirkuk from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which officially supported the referendum, opposed Kurdish nationalist fervor and questioned the wisdom of conducting the referendum in Kirkuk. They feared that holding the plebiscite there would damage the communal cohesion among the Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen communities. The dissidents were silenced the night before the vote, as excitement triumphed. The next day, Kirkuk residents cast ballots. With the government in Baghdad, along with Iran and Turkey, tightening the screws on the Kurdish leadership to forgo acting on the result of the balloting, internal Kurdish fissures have resurfaced in Kirkuk.

Mohammad Khezer, an Arab member of the Kirkuk provincial council, told Al-Monitor, “The Kurdistan referendum has caused three main challenges. [First is] a psychological one, which has created tension between different ethnic groups who used to live together peacefully. The second is related to the fight against Daesh [Islamic State], and we see that the peshmerga are not participating in the Hawija battle; and the third one is the fear that the opposition from the neighboring countries may cause the peshmerga, the Hashd [Popular Mobilization Units (PMU)] and the army to clash with each other in Kirkuk.” The Baghdad government amassed thousands of troops around Kirkuk as the army, backed by the predominantly Shiite militias of the PMU, advance on Hawija, the Islamic State's last stronghold in northern Iraq.

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