A bitter dispute over the fate of a military base in the contested Iraqi oil city of Kirkuk is providing an early glimpse of potential conflict following the final pullout of US troops this year.
Iraqi civilian and military officials on Thursday held a handover ceremony for the Hurriyah base, which includes the airport in Kirkuk, the capital of the ethnically mixed, oil-rich province of the same name, which the autonomous Kurdistan region wants to incorporate against Baghdad’s wishes.
The US military said that as far as it is concerned, the base was not officially turned over to Iraq. But nevertheless the ceremony quickly drew condemnation from Kurdish politicians, who said the provincial council had voted earlier in the week for the base to become a civilian airport, and thus to be controlled by local police instead.
The dispute over the base “is a clear sign that Kirkuk will be an area of real problems between the Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen,” said Hamid Fadhel, a professor of politics at Baghdad University.
“It is also a sign that the situation in Kirkuk could lead to an ethnic war.” Najm Al Din Omar Karim, the Kurdish governor of Kirkuk province, held a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki, a Shiite Arab, to address the dispute.
“We asked the provincial council to vote on turning the military airport into a civil one, and they agreed,” Karim said.
“That is why we asked Maliki to implement this order, and he... said that he was ready to accept this decision and to implement it in the future.” Karim said that the base should be protected by a force under the direction of the Baghdad-controlled defence ministry, but that it should still be composed of troops from Kirkuk, or of members of the “Golden Lions” — a joint Arab-Kurdish security force.
Eventually, the parties “reached a deal that says that 12-15 Iraqi army vehicles will protect the airport, and we are happy with this solution,” he said.
“There may be some sides that want to make a crisis, but the prime minister’s acceptance of turning the military airport into a civil one eased the tension,” Karim said.
Before a solution to the dispute was reached, Kurdish security officials had said that additional Kurdish ex-rebel security forces, or peshmerga, had been sent to Kirkuk, although this was denied by Jabbar Yawar, the top official in the Kurdish ministry responsible for peshmerga affairs.
For his part, defence ministry spokesman Major General Mohammed Al Askari said: “Our ministry official received Hurriyah base in Kirkuk airport.
“Implementing the security pact between Iraq and the US is going smoothly, and without any problems,” he said.
Officials in Kirkuk, however, painted a different picture of the handover.
Ribwa Faeq Al Talabani, the vice president of the provincial council, said that “what happened in the city is a result of the absence of trust between the government and the provinces, and especially between the government and Kirkuk.” And Kamran Kirkuki, a member of the provincial council, accused the government of “trying to form areas of tension through ethnic disputes” to divert attention from real problems.
Sheikh Abdulrahman Munshid Aasim, one of the leaders of the Arab Political Council in Kirkuk, on the other hand, praised army control of the facility.
“Handing over the base to the Iraqi army is a good step taken by the government to preserve Iraq,” he said.
“This is a first step to deploy Iraqi army forces in Kirkuk, and we as Arabs appreciate this step. The problem that happened between the army and the police is evidence that the police are politicised and should be reconsidered.” US troops have played the role of mediators between Iraqi central government forces and those of the Kurdistan regional government, and were instrumental in setting up the Golden Lions.
But US forces are to quit Iraq by the end of 2011, leaving just a small number of soldiers under US embassy authority.
“There is danger for all Iraq from Kirkuk,” Fadhel said. “I think that Kirkuk will be the real test for an Iraq without Americans.”