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Peshmerga’s return to Kirkuk raises Arab and Turkmen fears

The good relationship between Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Massoud Barzani, has led to an agreement between Baghdad and Erbil that will see the return of peshmerga forces to Kirkuk.

BAGHDAD — Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi announced Feb. 12 that the security situation in Kirkuk has been stabilized. However, Kurdish parties now say Kurdish peshmerga forces have returned to Kirkuk province — an area disputed by Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen.

The federal authorities led by former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi restored control over Kirkuk and the disputed areas from peshmerga forces after the independence referendum of Kurdistan in October 2017. As a result, Kirkuk's former Kurdish Gov. Najmiddin Karim escaped, and Arab Gov. Rakan al-Jabouri was temporarily appointed.

Now that ties have been restored between Baghdad and Erbil and Kurds have become part of Abdul Mahdi’s government, given his strong ties with them, the Kurdish and Arab circles are talking about taking action to restore joint control between the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) over oil-rich Kirkuk.

Such action first began Jan. 23 when Abdul Mahdi decided to withdraw anti-terrorism forces from Kirkuk and then peshmerga forces returned to the northern and western borders of the province. All of this happened after the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Massoud Barzani, visited Baghdad and met with Abdul Mahdi on Nov. 22, 2018. That visit was described as historic because it ended the boycott that followed the referendum and paved the way for many arrangements for the future of Kirkuk.

KDP leader Muhsin al-Sadoun told Al-Monitor, “The fact that the KDP is part of the new Iraqi government has opened a new page of relations between Baghdad and Erbil, which resulted in resolving several issues such as the budget and the export of oil; [it also] allowed reaching an agreement over restoring joint security administration over Kirkuk.”

He added, “Kirkuk and the disputed areas are subject to Article 140 of the [Iraqi] Constitution, so its security issue must be managed by the federal and Kurdish forces, especially as dozens of districts and areas administered by the Kurdish parties need security support from the peshmerga.”

He noted that the current agreement stipulates peshmerga forces should remain outside the cities and local police should assume internal security.

Speaking about appointing a new governor for Kirkuk, Saadoun said, “The agreement between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan [PUK] and the KDP on forming the KRG included a paragraph on naming someone to assume this position in the coming period.”

He noted, “The new governor will most likely be affiliated with the PUK — which achieved the highest voter turnout in Kirkuk during the last general elections — and the number of members it has in local councils is greater than the seats the KDP occupies.”

According to reports in the local press, the PUK’s peshmerga forces reached the K1 base and made it all the way to Tuz Khormato district, which is affiliated with Salahuddin province. This provoked Turkmen and Arab parties.

Former Turkmen parliament member and member of the Sadrist movement Fawzi Tarzi told Al-Monitor, “Turkmen in the city fear the situation will change back to how it was and Kurds will be in control of all official and security circles.”

Tarzi said that what happened “comes within the framework of agreements sponsored by the United States, stipulating the return of peshmerga forces to Kirkuk and the appointment of a Kurdish governor, which we strongly reject.”

Meanwhile, Mansour al-Baiji, a parliament member for the Fatah alliance, told Al-Monitor that the return of peshmerga forces to Kirkuk at this time will “destabilize the city and the situation will go back to square one.”

Baiji added, “These so-called agreements need to be made public and fall within the framework of the [Iraqi] Constitution. The city should also remain under the control of the federal forces, since [Kirkuk] is one of the unorganized provinces in the KRG.”

Disputed areas — namely Kirkuk — have for many years remained major outstanding issues between Baghdad and the KRG.

Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution of 2005 provides a road map to settle the dispute by removing the demographic policies of the Saddam Hussein regime, accomplishing a census and concluding with a referendum in Kirkuk and other disputed territories to determine the will of the citizens: either join the KRG or remain under control of the federal government.

The implementation of the article was due to be completed by the end of 2007, but the Kurds continue to accuse Baghdad of delaying it.

At the political level, the debate over the governor's position could be resolved in the local elections scheduled for the end of this year, which will include Kirkuk for the first time in the provincial elections law after agreeing on a special system for holding elections.

In terms of security, Abdul Mahdi is trying to win over as many political forces as possible, including Kurdish forces. He made it to his position as a candidate that all parties agreed upon. He did not have a large parliamentary bloc that supported him, which he needs right now — as long as the bloc does not control him.

Abdul Mahdi now has to please the Kurds without bothering Arabs and Turkmen. This is why he is giving Kurdish people control of some areas after agreeing to hand over Kirkuk’s oil to Baghdad and resolving the controversy over the province’s share of the country’s general budget.

However, any action will have an Arab and Turkmen reaction. This may threaten Abdul Mahdi's position and may also lead to clashes on the ground, as happened when the PUK tried to raise the Kurdish flag in January over some buildings in Kirkuk province.

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