A few days ahead of the Kurdistan referendum on independence, an ethnic clash took place between a group of Kurds and Turkmens in Kirkuk on Sept. 19. Local police deployed in different parts of the city to prevent the development of the deadly clash.
The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) rules Kirkuk city through grassroots organizing committees in every neighborhood, including in Turkmen and Arab communities, the origins of which date back to the 1970s, when the PUK began fighting the Baathist regime of President Saddam Hussein. Out of Kirkuk governorate’s 13 seats in the national parliament in Baghdad, the PUK has six. Nothing can be done in Kirkuk without the approval of the Malband, the PUK office that oversees the work of the grassroots organizing committees.
The PUK is notoriously fractured, however, and this is reflected in the party’s position on the upcoming referendum. Sensing the potential for unrest and trying to address the concerns of Arab and Turkmen communities, Malband members voted Sept. 14 to exclude Kirkuk governorate residents from voting in the referendum.
“We decided to reject holding the referendum in Kirkuk … because the future of the city is in danger and we are not ready to gamble on the city.” Yasin Izzadin, a Malband deputy, was quoted as saying.
“When they decided to hold the referendum, why did they not come and consult with the political parties in Kirkuk?” asked Rawand Mala Mahmoud, another Malband deputy, on a local TV channel Sept. 18. He added, “No one asked us if having the referendum in Kirkuk will be a good idea. … What would you say to your people if the referendum is not approved?”
The pro-referendum camp tried to offset the influence of the organizing committees on Sept. 19, when Iraqi Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani traveled to Kirkuk, accompanied by veteran peshmerga commander Kosrat Rasul, who is officially in charge of the PUK following Talabani’s illness. Rasul tried to end the bickering and ordered the members of the Malband to support the referendum. Most Malband members did not attend a pro-referendum rally afterward and did not initiate campaigning for the referendum, sources informed about the dispute told Al-Monitor. Most members continue to think holding the referendum in Kirkuk province is unwise.