Hoisting of Kurdistan region flag in Kirkuk leads to tensions

Iraq and Kurdistan region flags fly side by side.

Tensions over the hoisting of the Kurdistan region (KRG)’s flag in government buildings in Kirkuk city, northern Iraq, has prompted statements from several parties.

The flag was raised in official places alongside the Iraq flag on 20 March during a Kurdish Newroz celebration. Kirkuk governor Najmaldin Karim defended the decision saying it was permitted by the Iraqi constitution.

“Kurdistan’s flag is not only the flag of the Kurds. It is the flag of all the social makeup of Kirkuk. We tell those who want to instigate chaos: this flag is that of the Arabs and Turkmen, as well as the Kurds. It is the flag of Kurdistan which is a place for everyone,” Karim said.

Turkmen and Arab residents of the city, as well as Baghdad and Ankara rejected the move, after which it was taken to a vote at the Kirkuk Provincial Council and ushered in officially on Tuesday.

Hassan Toran, the deputy leader of the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF), condemned the decision in a press conference, saying that “making such a decision came when Arabs and Turkmen boycotted the session and issuing this decree confirms the division of Kirkuk’s community,” reported Rudaw.

Hundreds of Turkmen protested the decision in front of the governorate building on Wednesday calling for the decision to be scrapped. Several Turkmen and Arab groups reportedly visited Karim in support of the decision.

ITF leader Arshad Salihi threatened that the move could lead to internal fighting. “Kirkuk is a fire that if ignited will burn everyone,” Salihi told Rudaw on Saturday, before the decision had come into effect.

Turkmen deputies have stated that they will challenge the decision in the supreme court in Baghdad.

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry also made a statement saying the decision “could not be accepted and was cause for concern.”

Turkey’s opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli said Kirkuk was “Turkish and would remain Turkish.”

“Those who want to eliminate the Turkmen will have to defeat 80 million [Turks].”

However Kurdish political parties welcomed the decision saying it was constitutional.

KRG Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani, referring to Kirkuk as the Kurds’ sacred Jerusalem wrote in a Facebook post, “Congratulations on raising our flag in Kurdistan’s Jerusalem.”

Meanwhile the Kurdistan Regional Presidency, headed by Masoud Barzani, released a statement on Thursday saying the move was “legal and normal” and should not become a point of political rivalry.

The UN and US have also weighed in on the disagreement warning against inflaming tensions.

In a statement on 21 March, the UN mission in Iraq (UNAMI) said in a statement, “The Mission cautions against any unilateral steps that might jeopardize harmony and peaceful coexistence among many ethnic and religious groups that rightly call Kirkuk their home and want to live and work together in the post-Daesh [IS] period, building on the spirt of unity and cooperation of all components in fighting the terrorism of Daesh.”

An official from the US Foreign Ministry said, “Iraqis should try to build a free, democratic, united and prosperous Iraq together.”

While almost half of Kirkuk’s 120,000 population is made up of Kurds the other half is composed of Turkmen, Arabs and Assyrians.

Although the city is not officially part of the KRG, it is largely administered by the regional government with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) the most influential party. The development has been deemed as a bid to strengthen Kurdish calls for secession from Baghdad in a post-IS Iraq.

Kirkuk and several other areas fall under Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution as “disputed territories” in which local residents choose which administration their areas should belong to. However referendums have not been held in any of the areas since 2003.