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 Kurdish Peshmerga forces will stay near Kirkuk city: Minister

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Kurdish Peshmerga forces will stay near Kirkuk city: Minister  9.3.2011  

March 9, 2011

SULAIMANIYAH, Kurdistan region 'Iraq', — A Kurdish official says thousands of Kurd forces will remain in new positions around the oil-rich Iraqi city of Kirkuk. The fighters' presence could ratchet up tensions between the central government and the Kurds' self-ruled northern Kurdistan region.

Sheikh Jaafar Mustafa, the Minister of Peshmerga (Kurdish forces) told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the fighters won't leave until the situation normalizes.

The Kurdish government sent thousands of peshmerga into positions around Kirkuk on Feb. 24 fearing demonstrations planned for the next day could turn violent. The Kurdish side says it must protect Kirkuk from al-Qaida, Arab groups and supporters of Saddam Hussein's former regime.

The Kurds are seeking to integrate the province into the semi-autonomous Kurdistan     

Sheikh Jaafar Mustafa, The Minister of Peshmerga (Kurdish forces in Kurdistan region, Iraq)
Region clamming it to be historically a Kurdish city, it lies just south border of the Kurdistan autonomous region, the population is a mix of majority Kurds and minority of Arabs, Christians and Turkmen, lies 250 km northeast of Baghdad.

Kurds have a strong cultural and emotional attachment to Kirkuk, which they call "the Kurdish Jerusalem." Kurds see it as the rightful and perfect capital of an autonomous Kurdistan state.

"Our forces will leave when the troubles and tension end in Kirkuk and the city returns to its normal situation," said Jafaar Mustafa, the minister in charge of the Kurdish "peshmerga" fighting force. He did not give an exact date and said the Kurds were coordinating the fighters' presence with the Iraqi army in the area.

The Kurds have long had forces north of the city working with U.S. and Iraqi troops in a series of combined checkpoints created at the behest of American forces as a way to foster cooperation and trust between Kurdish and Arab forces. But the additional forces sent in - and their move south of the city- increased their presence considerably.

"Kurds are now trying to see if they can encircle Kirkuk with a ring of Kurdish forces, which is something they've never had before," sadi Michael Knights from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The Kurdish side says it needs to protect the city from al-Qaida, Arab groups and supporters of Saddam Hussein's former regime and was acting on intelligence that those groups were planning to take over the city during protests.

"We are not strangers to Kirkuk. We are part of the defense mechanism to protect Kirkuk," said Maj. Gen. Shirko Fateh, the commander of the recently deployed peshmerga forces.

Fateh said his forces now control all the five roads leading to Kirkuk from southern cities such as Hawija and Tikrit.

Fateh said the move had been coordinated with the central Iraqi government and U.S. forces, but a close ally of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the premier had asked the Kurdish forces to pull back. U.S. military officials did not have an immediate response.

Hassan al-Sineed, the head of Parliament's security and defense committee, said al-Maliki had asked Kurdish President Massoud Barzani to pull the forces back because there is no more need for them in. He said the forces were supposed to withdraw soon but gave no date.

Al-Maliki is caught between standing tough on an issue that is considered core to his Arab constituency and not upsetting the Kurds, who are one of his key allies in his newly-formed government.

The peshmerga's arrival in the city 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Baghdad have raised fears with Arab and Turkoman residents afraid that the Kurdish forces now positioned around the city will never leave and are instead trying to push for full Kurdish control of the city.

"The safety of Kirkuk people should be the responsibility of the central government only," said an Arab politician in the city, Ahmed al-Obeidi. "What we need here is useful solutions,
www.ekurd.netnot more troops sent by politicians who want to change the fate of the city."

He also suggested that the decision to deploy the troops was a way to deflect attention from ongoing protests in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah. Thousands of protesters have been taking to the streets of the city, demanding political and economic reforms.

Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution is related to the normalization of the situation in Kirkuk city and other disputed areas through having back its Kurdish inhabitants and repatriating the Arabs relocated in the city during the former regime’s time to their original provinces in central and southern Iraq.

The article also calls for conducting a census to be followed by a referendum to let the inhabitants decide whether they would like Kirkuk to be annexed to the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region or having it as an independent province.

The former regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had forced over 250,000 Kurdish residents to give up their homes to Arabs in the 1970s, to "Arabize" the city and the region's oil industry.

The last ethnic-breakdown census in Iraq was conducted in 1957, well before Saddam began his program to move Arabs to Kirkuk. That count showed 178,000 Kurds, 48,000 Turkomen, 43,000 Arabs and 10,000 Assyrian-Chaldean Christians living in the city. 

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