Kirkuk, Iraq - Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), addressed the Kurdish parliament earlier this month, requesting that its members begin preparations to hold a referendum on Kurdish independence.
In a closed session, Barzani asked parliament members to "promptly create an independent electoral commission and begin preparations for holding a referendum".
"The time has come for us to determine our future," said Barzani in a speech that local media had anticipated as "historical". The day before the parliamentary session, Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had already rejected the notion of a referendum, saying the move would "damage" the Kurds.
In what has been criticised by Baghdad as an exploitation of Iraq’s chaos, the KRG's most controversial move towards self-determination has been its assimilation of Kirkuk, a city that is historically and economically important.
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For years Kirkuk made international headlines because of its volatile security situation. On June 25, a suicide bomber killed at least three people and wounded dozens in the market of a predominantly Kurdish neighbourhood.
The ethnically diverse population - primarily Turkmen, Kurds and Arabs - and each group’s individual claim to the city has also seen Kirkuk involved in conflicts over who will govern. Most notably, during Saddam Hussein’s 'Arabisation' process, a forced demographic re-arrangement saw the scattering of Turkmen and Kurds and their replacement with Arabs.
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In this now unlikely safe haven, 24-year-old Omar, who didn't give Al Jazeera his last name, sat slumped on a stool under the searing afternoon sun, selling toys in the bazaar. Omar fled Diyala province in eastern Iraq with his family and only the clothes on his back after the breakout of violence between the Islamic State group, formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and the Iraqi Army in his hometown of Baqubah.
In a conflict that has seen the displacement of 500,000 Iraqis, Omar saw Kirkuk as the safest and most immediate destination for him and his family. Omar had been sharing accommodation with ten people: "We are two families in one room", he said.
After the Iraqi Army disintegrated and left its posts in the face of the blitzkrieg carried out by the Islamic State group across northern Iraq, Kurdish soldiers known as Peshmerga filled the vacuum, taking control of the oil-rich province they have so often claimed as their own, and bringing a sense of comfort to an often-precarious city.
Many Kirkuk residents claimed to feel safer than they did prior to the arrival of the Peshmerga. "The situation is not good but we are not afraid, we have the Peshmerga here so we feel safe," said Nazam Ali, a local Kurdish bread-seller, adding that he hoped Kirkuk would one day be included within Iraq's Kurdish region.
"I hope Kirkuk will become part of Kurdistan before I die," he said.
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Kurdish officials have said that Maliki, who has often claimed Kirkuk to be Iraqi and belong to no other identity, called on the Peshmerga to take over, following his army’s retreat.
"Why the Iraqi army left is still an enigma," Maysoon Salem Al-Damluji, a member of the Council of Representatives for the Iraqi National List, told Al Jazeera. "Kirkuk is Iraqi, but the problem needs to be settled through negotiations, not militarily," she said.
We have had Peshmerga [in Kirkuk] since 2003, the number increased about two years ago because of tension with Baghdad. We have just moved them a little further out, where there is danger of attacks on Kirkuk.
When asked about security and the alleged Peshmerga presence within the city, Kirkuk's Governor, Dr Najmadin Karim, a member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, insisted that there were no Kurdish soldiers inside the city.
He said that the Peshmerga had only been deployed to the southern outskirts of Kirkuk, and that only police and Kurdish security forces, known as Asayish, patrolled the city. "The Peshmerga were already here, we just asked for reinforcement," he said.
According to The Guardian, however, on June 12 "truckloads of Peshmerga fighters patrolled the streets" in the city. A week later, the only sign of the Kurdish military was a truck of soldiers on its way back from the front line in Basheer, 15km south of Kirkuk.
"We have had Peshmerga [in Kirkuk] since 2003, the number increased about two years ago because of tension with Baghdad. We have just moved them a little further out, where there is danger of attacks on Kirkuk," said Karim, adamant that the KRG had not forcefully encroached on disputed land in northern Iraq that are under both Iraqi and Kurdish control.
But despite Barzani’s call for a referendum, the Kurdish leader had already ruled out giving up Kirkuk.
Ali, a local Turkmen said he worried when the fighting in Basheer began, concerned that the violence might engulf the city. But mirroring what seemed to be a collective feeling, Ali said he had faith in the Kurdish military and security forces. "If there were no Peshmerga or Asayish then the city would be like Mosul, we would leave and go to Sulaymaniyah or Erbil, but because of them we are safe," Ali said.
Ali said that the city had welcomed internally-displaced persons and that cultural and religious differences had not chipped away at their unity. "We are proud of the Peshmerga, we don’t like [Prime Minister] Maliki’s troops," he added.
But experts have questioned the military’s weaponry and ability to withstand sustained conflict.
"Whilst the Peshmerga has performed well against [the Islamic State group] in skirmishes, there is some doubt whether they can maintain those standards in a sustained conflict, their weapons inventory and ammunition stocks are not suited to such conflicts," said Michael Stephens, Deputy Director of Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Qatar, a British defence and security think-tank.
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Outside the bazaar, a young Arab man was heading home for the afternoon. Salam said he worried about the city’s security situation, but like others, he also expressed his utmost faith in the Kurdish forces. The 35-year-old was sceptical, however, when talking about Kirkuk becoming part of the Kurdish enclave. "I don’t know right now, it depends on the government," he said.
"Especially for the Arabs, we will see what the situation is like at the time," Salam added.
According to RUSI’s Stephens, "the myriad of security concerns that the KRG must now consider means that control of Kirkuk is not necessarily a cause for celebration".
Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution would see the reversal of Saddam Hussein’s ‘Arabisation’ process and the return of Kurdish families to Kirkuk and other disputed territories, including Diyala and Nineveh Province.
The programme, known as ‘normalisation’, has seen the Iraqi government compensate Arab and Kurdish families and give them a chance to relocate to the land they lived on prior to the 'Arabisation' process. This programme would then be followed by a referendum to determine whether the residents of the disputed region want to live under the control of the KRG or the federal government.
Over the past few weeks, Article 140 has become another source of tension in the increasingly strained relations between Baghdad and the Kurdish government. While the article has not been legally implemented, KRG President Barzani told reporters that the article had been put into effect after Kirkuk came under Kurdish control.
Maliki has insisted, however, that Article 140 has not been implemented and that a Kurdish referendum should not be carried out, stating: "We will not stop until we control the areas that were seized from us."
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Source: Al Jazeera