For decades, even a census has been considered too risky in the hotly contested northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, claimed by Kurds, Arabs and the Turkmen ethnic group. But on Monday, the city’s residents will join people across northern Iraq in a vote on Kurdish independence.
Kirkuk is the most significant of Iraq’s disputed territories under de facto Kurdish control that will vote in the controversial referendum Sept. 25. After a century of Kurds pushing for independence, Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurds’ semi-autonomous region has promised his people the chance to vote on their future. The governments in Baghdad and in Washington have urged the Kurdish leadership to postpone or cancel the vote, seeing it as a divisive distraction from the fight against ISIS.
But for some non-Kurdish residents of Kirkuk and other disputed areas, the referendum is seen as a provocation and an attempt by Kurds to assert power in contested territory. Experts fear the vote could lead to unrest and even violence.
“This is a very dangerous move,” says Kamal Chomani, a nonresident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “If the referendum is held there will be violence between the ethnic groups of Kirkuk.”
The contention here is not just about Kurdish self-rule, it is about what happens to the tens of thousands of Arab and Turkmen residents of Kirkuk under Kurdish rule. Arab residents already seemed hesitant to discuss the referendum this week, many refusing to say if they will even vote, but Turkmen leaders have been more outspoken.
“We won’t allow Kirkuk to be part of Kurdistan,” says Ali Mehdi Sadiq, who is with the Iraqi Turkmen Front and member of the Kirkuk Provincial council. Sitting in his central Kirkuk office behind tall cement blast walls guarded by armed men, Saddiq says the Turkmen will take up arms to stop the Kurds from annexing the city. Earlier this week, clashes outside another Turkmen party office left at least one person dead. “We will fight to the last Turkman,” Sadiq says.
Similarly, the city’s mostly Sunni Arabs worry what will happen if the Kurds declare independence. “There are no guarantees of rights for Arabs if Kirkuk gets attached to Kurdistan. The only thing they mention is the rights of the Kurds and the Turkmen,” Ramla Al-Obaidi, an Arab member of the Kirkuk provincial council….