Middle East

Kirkuk council votes for referendum on joining Iraqi Kurdistan

March 20, 2017: Kurdish Peshmerga forces celebrate Newroz Day, a festival marking spring and the new year, in Kirkuk.

March 20, 2017: Kurdish Peshmerga forces celebrate Newroz Day, a festival marking spring and the new year, in Kirkuk.  (REUTERS/Ako Rasheed )

The Iraqi province of Kirkuk has voted in favor of a region-wide referendum to determine if it will join Kurdistan’s government or remain tied to Baghdad.

The vote was held among members of Kirkuk’s provincial council on Tuesday, according to MiddleEastEye.net, and the move has been considered by some as likely to further tensions between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and those in the Kirkuk region, as the decision for a referendum comes just one week after the council voted in favor of raising the Kurdish flag on municipal buildings in the city of Kirkuk.

The decision raised the ire of the city’s Turkmen minorities who protested the flag raisings and with Turkmen and Arab members of the council boycotting the most recent vote on the referendum, tensions in the region are high as it seeks to rebuild post-ISIS.

"If there is a referendum for Kurdistan, that should include Kirkuk as well," Kirkuk's governor Najmaldin Karim told Middle East Eye. "We have a lot of grievances with Baghdad. It’s a strong, centralized and inefficient, incompetent administration. Baghdad is very controlling, and the constitution says Iraq should be federal."

Karim believes that a vote on the future of Kirkuk should be included on any referendum vote on the independence of Kurdistan. Observers in Baghdad and elsewhere in the region have been quick to condemn what they see as unilateral moves to annex Kirkuk to the KRG.

Kurds have long claimed Kirkuk and its huge oil reserves. They also see their city as their historical capital.

In what was seen as a symbolic gesture, the Iraqi parliament on Saturday overwhelmingly voted to repeal the decision to hoist the flag over municipal buildings, while both Iraq and Turkey also condemned the raising of the flag.

"As you know, for a time now there has been talk that Iraq will split into three regions of Kurds, Shias and Sunnis," Iraq's prime minister, Haider al-Abadi told Kurdish website Rudaw on Saturday.

"But that is totally objectionable. We are serious about Iraq’s territorial integrity."

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said last week that his country would not accept any attempt to declare an independent Kurdistan and to incorporate Kirkuk into the KRG despite their relatively close ties with the KRG. He also disputed the Kurdish historical claim to the city, telling Turkish TV on Saturday that Kirkuk was "a Turkmen city.”

The Turkish state has long been at war with Kurdish militants on its own borders and, although the KRG is ideologically at odds with Turkey's Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Turkish officials still fear the effect an independent Kurdistan could have on Kurdish separatists in their own country.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday also called on Iraqi Kurds to lower the Kurdish flag in Kirkuk, warning that failure to do so would damage their relations with Turkey, according to a report from Reuters.

"We don't agree with the claim 'Kirkuk is for the Kurds' at all. Kirkuk is for the Turkmen, Arabs and Kurds, if they are there. Do not enter into a claim it's yours or the price will be heavy. You will harm dialogue with Turkey," Erdogan said.

"Bring that flag down immediately," he also said at a rally in the Black Sea province of Zonguldak.