Kurdistan flag row threatens to reignite Kirkuk powder keg

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan raised the flag of Kurdistan over its headquarters in the multiethnic city of Kirkuk, fueling tensions between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan over the disputed, oil-rich city.

al-monitor Kurdish residents hold flags during Norouz celebrations in Kirkuk, Iraq, March 20, 2016. Photo by REUTERS/Ako Rasheed.

Jan 14, 2019

SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq – The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) raised Kurdistan flags over its headquarters in Kirkuk on Jan. 9, sparking tensions between Kurds and other ethnicities in the multiethnic city and between Iraqi Kurdistan and Baghdad as well.

Kirkuk, 145 miles north of Baghdad, has a mixed population of Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs along with significant oil reserves. According to article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, the final status of Kirkuk and other areas should be resolved in a referendum to determine whether they will remain part of federal Iraq or the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region.

Kurdish peshmerga took control of Kirkuk and other disputed areas in 2014, after the Islamic State swept through much of northern and western Iraq. In October 2017, Iraqi forces expelled the Kurdish forces from the city following an independence referendum in the three provinces of Iraqi Kurdistan and in disputed neighboring areas, including Kirkuk. The Baghdad government, and others, including Iran, Turkey and the United States, had opposed conducting the vote.

On top of Kirkuk’s already unstable security situations due to Islamic State attacks, Iraqi Special Forces deployed Jan. 10 in Kirkuk, increasing the chances of an escalation. According to Agence France-Presse, the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Unit gave the PUK until noon Jan. 11 to lower the flag.

The PUK lowered the banner at some of its offices ahead of the deadline. “The Kurdistan flag has been taken down from committee offices,” said Fakhraddin Mohammed, media officer for the PUK's main office in Kirkuk. “Until the court rules on the issue, the Kurdistan flag will only be raised over the political bureau and the main office, but it will be lowered over PUK committee offices,” Mohammed said.

Following the PUK’s initial hoisting of the flag, Kirkuk's acting governor, Rakan Saed, demanded its removal and called for direct military intervention by the Baghdad government. He warned the PUK that it would be responsible for whatever consequences might fall upon the city. 

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi called the move “unconstitutional.” He issued a statement asserting, “Kirkuk is a disputed city and located outside the borders that the constitution has drawn for the Kurdistan region. The status of the disputed areas will remain as such, and no changes will be made until it is decided on through the constitution.”

Abdul Mahdi also placed a call to President Barham Salih, a Kurd and former second deputy of the PUK secretary-general, to urge him to request that the party lower the flag, stressing that Salih should fulfill his duties as a “protector of the Iraqi constitution.” He also called for the federal court system to legally settle the matter if the situation is not otherwise resolved.

PUK officials in Kirkuk asserted that hoisting the Kurdish flag does not contravene the Iraqi constitution.

“Hoisting the Kurdistan flag in Kirkuk is not an unfamiliar issue,” Rawand Mullah Mahmud, deputy head of the PUK’s organizational center in Kirkuk, told Al-Monitor. “It was flown from 2003 until 2017. This is not a negotiable issue. Kirkuk has been within the Kurdistan region’s disputed areas. This issue [of flying the flag] has never been a critical one to either the Kurdistan region or Iraq.”

Mahmud continued, “We lowered Kurdistan’s flag when Jalal Talabani, the late Iraqi president, passed away [in 2017]. Now we are under the pressure of our party's grassroots, demanding us to hoist the Kurdistan flag beside the Iraqi and PUK banners over our headquarters. Thus, we deemed the time appropriate for such a step. Besides, we have been waiting for a long time to raise the Kurdistan flag.”

In further defending the PUK's action, Mahmud claimed that there are no “bad pretexts” to raising the flag or any need for tensions in regard to it. He called Saed a “chauvinist former Baathist who opposes Kurds” and asserted that if raising the flag is illegal and unconstitutional, then the Iraqi judiciary should settle the matter.

Mahmud made clear that the PUK made the decision to raise the flag without consultation or coordination with the party's rival in Iraqi Kurdistan, the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Al-Monitor called several high-ranking KDP officials and the official spokesman for the Kurdistan Regional Government, but they declined to comment.

Control over rights to Kirkuk’s enormous oil reserves has been a source of significant controversy between the Kurdistan region’s ruling parties and Baghdad. According to the US Energy Information Administration, “The KRG-controlled areas as of July 2018, held about 3 billion barrels in resources. The KRG estimate of 45 billion barrels is likely higher because they include both unproven reserves and the disputed Kirkuk area fields.”

In a 2006 report, the Iraq Study Group asserted, “Kirkuk’s mix of Kurdish, Arab, and Turkmen populations could make it a powder keg. A referendum on the future of Kirkuk (as required by the Iraqi Constitution before the end of 2007) would be explosive and should be delayed.”

Kamal Chomani, a Kurdish non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for the Middle East Policy, told Al-Monitor that the hoisting of the Kurdistan flag in Kirkuk in part stems from attempts to form a new KRG cabinet and the long-running rivalry between the PUK and KDP. He also said flying the flag does not violate the law.

“Kirkuk is a stronghold of the PUK, and after 16 October 2017, when the Kurdish parties lost the city to Iraqi forces, a Sunni Arab governor was appointed,” Chomani remarked. “The PUK has failed to reclaim the governorship due to conflict with the KDP, and the KDP wants the PUK weakened in Kirkuk.” 

The Kurdistan region held parliamentary elections on Sept. 30, but the leading parties have not been able to assemble a new government due to disagreements over power sharing.

“In the process of forming the new KRG cabinet, the PUK wants to reach an agreement with the KDP on posts in Erbil, Kirkuk and Baghdad. The KDP, however, prefers to treat each case separately,” Chomani explained. The Kurdish parties share power in the Kurdistan region between themselves, share power in Baghdad with the Arab parties on behalf of Iraqi Kurdistan, and share power in Kirkuk with Arab and Turkmen parties. The KDP wants a comprehensive agreement encompassing all three situations, but the PUK wants separate agreements for each area.

“The post of Kirkuk governor is one of the main disputes between the KDP and the PUK. All the above-mentioned realities were the main reasons that the PUK hoisted the Kurdish flag, as the PUK fears that the KDP might reach an agreement with the Turkoman and Arab parties to appoint a new [acting] governor, until [provincial] elections, who is not PUK.”

Chomani said that in short, “The PUK wants to show that it is the only defender of Kurdish rights in Kirkuk, and it wants to tell the Iraqi government that the Iraqi government policy of imposing its will is no more acceptable. The PUK wants to reclaim the governorship by any means.”

All told, the Kurdistan flag has become part of the power struggle in Kirkuk.

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