Tuz Khurmatu, Iraq – Beshtowan Kadir, 44, says that a shooting last month in Tuz Khurmatu’s Komar market between Kurdish youths and members of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, a Shia militia, taught him a hard lesson: When he is wearing traditional Kurdish clothes, he cannot visit the market.
“The Shia militia would kill me the minute they see me,” Kadir told Al Jazeera. “Some [Kurds] have lost their lives only because of who they are, and those who are still alive cannot reveal their identity.
“We are stuck somewhere between not living and not dying.”
Located 80km south of Kirkuk and 175km north of Baghdad, Tuz Khurmatu is a place of mixed identities.
The multi-ethnic town of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, with an estimated population of 60,000, has witnessed increased tensions between its Turkmen and Kurdish residents, resulting in the division of the town into Turkmen and Kurdish quarters.
Residents told Al Jazeera that they were now trapped in “ghettos”. Concrete barriers have been erected in the streets, separating the Kurdish and Turkmen neighbourhoods. Armed men keep a close watch along the town’s streets from the areas they control, and any attempt to cross to the other side means risking a sniper’s bullet.
“The growing fear among the people has led the local authorities to build barriers to separate Shia Turkmen neighbourhoods from those of the Sunni Kurds, and in between, the Arab minority in the city remains trapped,” Challah Abdul Ahmad, the governor of Tuz Khurmatu, told Al Jazeera.
Tuz Khurmatu is located in a disputed territory between the Kurdish-administered north and the Iraqi central government. While Kurdish residents consider it to be part of Kirkuk, Turkmen say it is within Salaheddine province.
We have lost the ability to keep people safe. The armed groups are the most powerful in the city, and the government is not doing much to help us restore order.
Determining which province Tuz Khurmatu belongs to is crucial for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). If it is within Kirkuk, it would mean it is part of the Kurdish-ruled regions.
Under Iraq’s 2005 constitution, the political status of the province of Kirkuk – and other disputed territories – was scheduled to be formally resolved by the end of December 2007. However, the referendum was delayed several times and no clear date has been set yet.
Last June, Peshmerga forces took control of Kirkuk city. It is not possible to go through the city freely. Reporting from one side of Tuz Khurmatu makes it practically impossible to cross over to the other side, and the town’s streets are deserted.
“Many of the families have fled for their lives,” Mawloud Hamma, a resident of Tuz Khurmatu, told Al Jazeera. “We have had enough of the fighting between armed groups, assassinations and bombings in the city, and no one can protect us. That is why many families left the city.”
Some analysts pointed out that the tension in Tuz Khurmatu has been escalating due to the growing influence of the Popular Mobilisation Forces.
Last November, the city witnessed deadly clashes between the Peshmerga and the Popular Mobilisation Forces, leaving many dead or missing, stores burned down and a city divided.
The Peshmerga’s chief of staff, Jabar Yawar, accused the Popular Mobilisation Forces of “burning houses and shops and shooting at security and Kurdish party headquarters”. In response, both Tuz Khurmatu’s Arab and Turkmen residents accused the Peshmerga of seeking to expel them from the city and to annex it to Kurdish control.
The central government in Baghdad, with the help of an Iranian delegate, mediated between the two sides to reach a deal. The Iranian intervention was crucial, since Tehran has the upper hand in controlling the Popular Mobilisation Forces.
According to local Kurdish media, an agreement between Peshmerga forces, local administration and Popular Mobilisation Forces was reached earlier this year. The mobilisation forces were to withdraw from the centre of the town, and a joint military force would be created to share control over the city.
Despite this agreement, Kurdish officials say the mobilisation forces are still present.
Although the fighting has stopped, the city remains unsafe. Hundreds of families left Tuz Khurmatu, and very few have returned to their homes.
Single-ethnicity neighbourhoods are now being formed, with many residents putting their houses up for sale if they are living in a neighbourhood of a different ethnicity.
The security situation remains volatile, as many fear another wave of violence is coming. The KRG has deployed more Peshmerga forces “to maintain order in the city”, but this could provoke the Popular Mobilisation Forces.
Abdul Ahmad, the governor of Tuz Khurmatu, fears that the current calm will not last much longer.
“We have lost the ability to keep people safe,” he said. “The armed groups are the most powerful in the city, and the government is not doing much to help us restore order.”