As the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) insists on its decision to hold an independence vote, the recent worrying incidents in Kirkuk have been considered a justification of the fears that the region, which is already grappling with uncertainties, may descend into violence following the referendum. Amid the ongoing debates over the referendum and criticism from the Iraqi central government and neighbor countries, clashes took place between Turkmens and referendum supporters in Kirkuk on Sept. 18, raising concerns over the future of the city. Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF) leader Ersad Salihi said the Turkmen National Movement Party's headquarters were attacked by the KRG's peshmerga forces.
Following the incident, a curfew was imposed by the Kirkuk police in an effort to prevent tensions from escalating.
Stressing that the situation in Kirkuk is critical, Salihi said the conflict broke out when a group of armed Kurdish peshmerga carried out an attack while passing the Turkmen National Movement Party's office.
Turkmen National Movement Party Deputy Abbas Beyatli stated that one attacker who spoke Kurdish was killed and two others were wounded.
Beyatlı added that they were condemning the attack and pointed out that such actions are aimed at flaring violence in Kirkuk.
Another incident that raised concerns was Iran-backed Hashd al-Shaabi's reported deployment of nearly 70 vehicles loaded with heavy weapons to the south of Kirkuk. It has been stated that the Hashd al-Shaabi was preparing for the operation on the district of Havice, an area currently under Daesh control.
Meanwhile, Barzani yesterday gave Baghdad a three-day ultimatum to provide Irbil with a deal good enough to convince him to forgo a controversial referendum.
As the independence referendum scheduled for Sept. 25 approaches, Turkey has voiced its criticism louder. On Sept. 19, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan held a phone conversation with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to discuss bilateral ties, recent developments in the region and the fight against PKK and Daesh terrorists, according to presidential sources.
In the talk, it was stressed that the KRG's insistence on the decision of the planned referendum would escalate tension in the region. The significance of the territorial integrity of Iraq was also underlined. In line with this view, the Federal Supreme Court of Iraq's order of suspension of the referendum was welcomed. President Erdoğan also expressed his sadness to al-Abadi and extended his condolences for those who lost their lives in the heinous terror attack in Dikar.
In the disputed province of Kirkuk, local lawmakers last month voted in favor of participating in the referendum. However, 14 lawmakers from local minorities – Turkmens and Arabs – boycotted the vote, so it was the Kurdish members of the provincial parliament who pushed the measure through.
The unilateral decision was condemned by the Iraqi central government. Further adding to the explosive mix, the KRG has expanded control beyond their enclave's formal borders, increasing the size of Iraqi Kurdistan by more than half. While fighting with Daesh, they seized parts of the northern Nineveh province and the oil-rich central region of Kirkuk, territory claimed by the Baghdad government.
Turkey repeatedly warned the KRG that it would not allow any further steps which would put Turkey's border security at risk. In line with this, on Sept. 18, the Turkish Armed Forces carried out a military drill near the Iraqi border.
On Monday, KRG reiterated that they were determined to hold the referendum. Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said on Sept. 18 that "There is no decision regarding the postponement of the referendum." He added that the high committee for referendum was founded to conduct the process and the current decision is that the referendum will be held on Sept. 25.
Meanwhile, Turkish government should give a deadline to the KRG to review its decision on the planned referendum in northern Iraq, a senior member of the main opposition party said yesterday.
"The government should give 24 hours to Barzani [the KRG president], saying, 'you better give up,'" Özturk Yılmaz, deputy chairman of the Republican People's Party (CHP) told journalists in Turkish Parliament.
"If he [Masoud Barzani] fails to step back… the government should prepare a package including military, political and economic measures [against KRG]," Yılmaz said.
The government and President Erdoğan have previously said on the referendum that Turkey would not hesitate in taking steps to ensure its regional security.
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