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 Disputed Iraqi Kirkuk province hopes for US to stay

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Disputed Iraqi Kirkuk province hopes for US to stay  6.5.2011  

May 6, 2011

KIRKUK, Iraq's border with Kurdistan region, — With tensions still high in the oil-rich ethnically mixed province of Kirkuk, some local officials are voicing support for a US Army presence here beyond a planned year-end pullout.

The flashpoint province in north Iraq sits at the centre of a major row between Kurdish regional authorities in Erbil and the central government in Baghdad, with insurgent groups exploiting the fissures to carry out attacks.

US military officials have persistently labelled the dispute as one of the biggest long-term challenges to stability in Iraq.

Violence remains high in the area, with bombings, targeted killings, and                  

Disputed Iraqi Kirkuk province hopes for US to stay.
even shootouts between Arab Iraqi soldiers and Kurdish security officers occurring in the past month.

"Al-Qaeda is trying to destabilise the situation in Kirkuk, targeting the different ethnic groups, fanning sectarianism," provincial deputy police chief Major General Torhan Yusuf Abdulrahman told AFP.

"Despite their differences, local political leaders all believe that it is necessary to maintain American forces in Kirkuk to help resolve problems."

In a bid to build trust between the two parallel forces -- Iraq's army and Kurdish regional forces known as peshmerga -- US forces have since January 2010 taken part in what is called the combined security force.

The project involves 1,200 American troops manning joint checkpoints and taking part in joint patrols with soldiers from both sides at key locations in four provinces in north Iraq, including 300 soldiers for Kirkuk alone, according to Colonel Barry Johnson, a US military spokesman.

But with all 45,000 American troops in Iraq due to withdraw from the country at the end of the year under the terms of a bilateral security pact, one senior Iraqi security official has labelled the pullout a "grave threat" for Kirkuk.

"The Americans are a source of confidence," said the official in Kirkuk, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"Everyone looks to them to resolve problems related to the security forces, and political conflicts."

Any continued presence of US forces in Iraq beyond 2011, however, would require a request to be made by Baghdad to Washington, Johnson noted.

No such request has yet been submitted, despite several senior US civilian and military leaders having visited Iraq last month to press Baghdad to decide, and no major Iraqi leader has yet publicly voiced support for a longer-term American presence.

The dispute between Baghdad and Erbil has its roots in ex-dictator Saddam Hussein's arabisation policy of the early 1990s, which forced around 120,000 Kurds out of Kirkuk and into Iraqi Kurdistan's three-province region,
www.ekurd.netaccording to New York-based Human Rights Watch.

That was partly reversed following Saddam's ouster in the 2003 US-led invasion, when peshmerga forces progressed south and east, claiming Kirkuk and parts of the northern and central provinces of Nineveh, Diyala and Salaheddin.

Since then, the two camps have accused each other of seeking to change the demographic balance in the provinces in order to secure their oil wealth, with the tensions occasionally spilling over.

On April 25, for example, two Kurdish security officers died and four people were wounded in clashes between Iraqi soldiers and Kurdish forces in the province's eponymous capital.

Senior security leaders quickly insisted in the aftermath of the shootings, though, that they were accidental and did not equate to a conflict between Arab Iraqi forces and their Kurdish counterparts.

Attacks also remain common in the province, despite violence levels having fallen from their peak in 2006 and 2007, with two guards of a local police chief having been killed in a bomb attack on Thursday.

The situation remains "fragile," according to provincial council chief Hassan Toran, a Turkman who says the size of the provincial police force is insufficient to help secure the area.

While Kirkuk is one of the few provinces in Iraq where the police rather than the army take primary responsibility for security, its 11,300-strong force has a shortfall of at least 3,500, according to a security official.

In that context, the withdrawal of US forces is a "great challenge," according to Kirkuk's Chaldean bishop Louis Sako.

"It will leave a vacuum that we need to fill with harmony and reconciliation," he said.

The oil-rich province of Kirkuk is one of the most disputed areas by the regional government and the Iraqi government in Baghdad.

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

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. 

In an effort to promote cooperation between Arab and Kurdish security forces along the disputed territory of which Kirkuk is at the centre, the US military began conducting tripartite patrols and running joint checkpoints with the two sides at the start of 2010.

Those efforts will conclude when US forces withdraw from the country by the end of this year, according to a bilateral security pact with Iraq.

Copyright ©, respective author or news agency, AFP | | Agencies 


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