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 Kurdistan flag dispute stirs Iraqi tensions

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Kurdistan flag dispute stirs Iraqi tensions  17.10.2011 

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Hundreds of demonstrators with Kurdistan flags marched in Khanaqin.

Hundreds of demonstrators with Kurdistan flags marched in Khanaqin. Photo: PUK
October 17, 2011

KHANAQIN, Diyala, — Hundreds rallied in the disputed Iraqi town of Khanaqin on Sunday to demand the reversal of a Iraq central government ruling barring the Kurdish flag of the autonomous Kurdistan region in official buildings.

The town, which has refused to follow the directive, lies within territory claimed by both the central government and authorities in the autonomous Kurdish capital of Erbil.

US officials persistently cite unresolved territorial rows between the two authorities as one of the biggest threats to Iraq's long-term stability.

Hundreds of demonstrators marched in Khanaqin, 150 kilometres northeast of Baghdad and near the Iranian border, to local government buildings a kilometre away, an AFP journalist at the scene said.   

They carried Kurdistani flags of the Kurdish region, demanding that government buildings in Khanaqin be allowed to hoist both it and the national flag of Iraq. They also called for an apology from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

The protesters shouted "Long live Kurdistan!" and "Khanaqin is Kurdish!" during their rally.

"We are Kurds and the flag is our symbol. On what basis do they want to lower the Kurdistan flag," said Rawand Raghib, 23, a Kurd participating in the protest.

The demonstration came a day after Kamal Kirkuki, speaker of the Kurdish regional parliament, told reporters at a news conference that "violating the sanctity of Kurdistan's flag is unacceptable."

Khanaqin mayor Mohammed al-Mullah Hamed said the town received the ruling on Tuesday.

Kurdish authorities want to incorporate Khanaqin and a swathe of territory running from Iraq's border with Iran to its frontier with Syria into their three-province autonomous region, a claim fiercely opposed by Baghdad.

The administration of Khanqin District in Iraqi disputed Diyala province warned, on Wednesday, from the outbreak of “a major popular revolution” if the central government lowers Kurdistan Flag raised at the top of governmental buildings in the District. We already refused this demand, the administration pointed up while calling not to provoke the public opinion.

Tensions remain over the zone.

They rose markedly in late February when, amid nationwide protests, Kurdish peshmerga fighters shifted southwest towards Kirkuk, the oil-rich ethnically-mixed city at the centre of the dispute, in what they said was a move to protect it.

The peshmerga eventually pulled back in late March.

Kurdistan’s Peshmerga Ministry had spread its forces in Khanaqin city of Diyala Province last August, after the escalation of the Kurdish demands on both popular and official levels to protect Kurds in those areas, considered among the areas in-conflict between Kurdistan government and the Federal government of Baghdad.

Diyala province, a restive part of Iraq outside the Kurdish autonomous region of Kurdistan but home to many Kurds. The Diyala district, which includes a string of villages and some of Iraq's oil reserves, is home to about 175,000 Kurds, most of them Shiites.

In June 2006, the local council of Khanaqin proposed that the district be integrated into the autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq.

During the Arabisation policy of Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, a large number of Kurdish Shiites were displaced by force from Khanaqin. They started returning after the fall of Saddam in 2003.

Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution is related to the normalization of the situation in Kirkuk city and other disputed areas like Khanaqin.

Kurdistan's government says oil-rich Khanaqin should be part of its semi-autonomous region, which it hopes to expand in a referendum in the future. In the meantime, Khanaqin and other so-called disputed areas remain targets of Sunni Arab insurgents opposed to Kurdish expansion and vowing to hold onto land seized during ex-dictator Saddam Hussein's efforts to "Arabize" the region.

Since 1991, the Kurds of Iraq achieved self-rule in part of the country. Today's teenagers are the first generation to grow up under Kurdish rule. In the new Iraqi Constitution, it is referred to as Kurdistan region. Kurdistan region has all the trappings of an independent state -- its own constitution, its own parliament, its own flag, its own army, its own border, its own border patrol, its own national anthem, its own education system, its own International airports, even its own stamp inked into the passports of visitors.

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