Iraqi P.M.’s Intent To Cede Military Command To Kurds Sparks Protests, Killing Four

Four civilians were killed after rival demonstrations in the Northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk on September 2nd. The protests took place as a reaction to media reports that Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani would turn over the Iraqi military’s Joint Operations Command headquarters in Kirkuk over to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (K.D.P.). Arab and Turkmen demonstrators set up a sit-in near the headquarters, and on the 2nd, a group of Kurdish protesters approached the demonstration. Police forces were deployed as a buffer and fired warning shots to force the dispersal of Kurdish demonstrators, according to a correspondent from the A.F.P. News Agency.

Four Kurdish protestors were shot dead during the clashes and fifteen were injured. Security and police in Kirkuk say that they are investigating responsibility for the deaths.

Kirkuk’s top security official, General Jabbar Naeema al-Taee, told A.F.P. the building was “under the control of the army.” Iraq’s supreme court issued a temporary ruling to halt the federal government’s decision to hand over the building. Former Sunni Arab member of parliament Abdallah Mafarji told the Associated Press that he was critical of Sudani turning over the building “as part of a political agreement that preceded the formation of his government.”

By the morning of the 3rd, however, the curfew Sudani imposed following the protests had been lifted and Amir Shwani, a spokesperson for Kirkuk police, told reporters that vehicles were moving normally. Still, additional troops deployed by security forces on the streets remained to “prevent violence and protect civilians,” Shwani said.

“It’s surprising that in the past few days security forces in Kirkuk did not prevent the violence and illegal behaviour of some groups but today the Kurdish protestors were faced with violence,” said Masoud Barzani, the former president of the autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq. “[The] blood of Kurdish youth was spilled, and it will carry a heavy price.”

The current unrest is related to a longer history of ethnic and political tensions within the region. Kirkuk, a multi-ethnic city located in the oil-rich Kirkuk province, has long been disputed between the autonomous Kurdish region in the north and Iraq’s federal government. After driving out ISIL (also known as ISIS), Kurdish forces took control of Kirkuk in 2014. However, the central government retook control of the city in 2017.

After coming into power in 2022, Sudani has worked to improve relations between his government and the K.D.P. However, Arabs, Turkmenians, and other minority groups who experienced suffering under the K.D.P.’s rule have been more resistant to the K.D.P.’s return.

“This incident comes at a critical time, while authorities in Baghdad and the semi-autonomous Kurdish region engage in talks to resolve several unsettled issues,” Al Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Abdel-Wahed reported from Baghdad, naming the federal budget, oil exports, and anti-Iran armed groups as some of the relevant concerns. These tensions cast a concerning shadow over negotiations between Baghdad and the K.D.P., as well as any attempt to maintain long-term stability in the region.