The Kirkuk Provincial Council (KPC) ruled yesterday to hold a referendum on the status of the disputed province and annexation by northern Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), in a session boycotted by Turkmen and Arab members.
Rebwar Talabani, the KPC's chairman, at a press conference alongside other Kurdish members, said that the council has transmitted its decision to hold a referendum to the Iraqi federal government. He added that the Iraqi Parliament's decision to use only the Iraqi flag in public institutions will not be recognized.
According to the unilateral decision by the KPC, the status of the city and surrounds, classified as a disputed area in Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, will be determined by a referendum that will ask whether the central government or the KRG should rule the province. There are 26 Kurdish members in the KPC, with nine Turkmen and six Arab members.
Last Thursday, the Kirkuk governorate requested that the KPC raise the KRG flag alongside the Iraqi flag at local institutions and instated the use of Kurdish alongside Arabic. On Tuesday, the KPC adopted a decision to raise the KRG flag in government buildings in a session boycotted by Arab and Turkmen members.
The Iraqi Parliament decided on Saturday to reject the decision to hoist the flag of the KRG alongside the Iraqi flag at government buildings. The Council of Representatives also ruled to suspend the sale of oil extracted from Kirkuk, noting that the income from Kirkuk's oil belongs to all Iraqis as cited in Article 11 of the Iraqi constitution, adding that it should be distributed equally among the KRG and other Iraqi provinces.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said the KRG's flag has been raised for 10 years in Kirkuk and the issue is now "intentionally being made into a big deal" by some media in order to "overshadow successful operations" of the Iraqi army against Daesh.
The decision sparked widespread criticism in Turkey, with many officials and politicians warning the KRG to avoid unilateral moves on Kirkuk. The Turkish Foreign Ministry expressed concerns about the decision, noting that the unilateral steps regarding the status of Kirkuk will damage dialogue between those representing different ethnic and religious groups, as well as breach the country's constitution.
The flag issue also came at a time when KRG leader Massoud Barzani made remarks on holding a possible referendum on independence at the "earliest time." Turkey's presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalın warned that the move would be "wrong," stressing that Turkey, which has cordial ties with the KRG, "disapproves of bringing up such a matter especially in times when regional security risks are at their highest."
He further drew attention to the importance of maintaining the territorial integrity of Iraq and noted that "Iraq's possible separation along ethnic and sectarian lines would not only be limited within the territory of Iraq but would rather spread throughout the region and everyone would pay the price for such a move." Kalın also stressed that the matter must be analyzed in this regard.
Meanwhile, the Iranian foreign ministry also said the recent move by the KRG to raise its flag alongside the Iraqi national flag at government buildings is "concerning." Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Behram Kasimi said "raising any flag apart from the Iraqi national one is against the Iraqi constitution and might raise tension in the country" in a statement released Monday on the ministry's website.
Kirkuk is among the territories disputed between the central government and the KRG, which is defined in Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, adopted after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and toppling of Saddam Hussein. Accordingly, the administrative statuses of these areas were to be determined with referendums by 2007, but the referendums have not yet been held due to political turmoil in the country.
Although the countryside of Kirkuk is predominantly inhabited by Kurds, the city itself is predominantly inhabited by Arabs and Iraqi Turkmens. The region was subject to an Arabization policy during the Baath Party rule, but after 2003 this policy was reversed in favor of Kurds, prompting protests by the local Arab and Turkmen population and raising concerns in Ankara. During the Daesh terrorist group's advance in northwestern Iraq in June 2014, KRG forces assumed control of the city.