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Kirkuk Curfew Lifted After Deadly Unrest at Rival Protests by Arabs, Kurds

A curfew was lifted in the multi-ethnic Iraqi city of Kirkuk on Sunday after protests turned violent and led to the deaths of four people.

Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani imposed the curfew on Saturday evening after rival protests – between Kurdish residents on one side and Turkmen and Arabs on the other – descended into deadly unrest despite a security presence.

Tensions had been brewing for nearly a week in Kirkuk, a northern city which has historically been disputed between the federal government in Baghdad and authorities in the autonomous Kurdistan region of the north.

The curfew “has been lifted,” General Kawa Gharib, the police chief in Kirkuk, told AFP. “The situation is now stable throughout the city.”

Sudani called for a commission of inquiry into the incident.

Four Kurds were killed and 15 people wounded during Saturday’s violence, according to the latest toll issued Sunday by Amer Shuani, the local police spokesman.

At least three of the four victims were shot dead, health officials said, but it was unclear who was responsible.

Security forces had been deployed as a buffer to keep the rival groups apart, and an AFP correspondent said they had to fire warning shots to disperse the Kurds.

Iraqi protesters block a road following protests in the multi-ethnic Iraqi city of Kirkuk

Arab and Turkmen demonstrators had staged a sit-in near the headquarters of the Iraqi security forces in Kirkuk province on August 28, after media reports that Sudani had ordered the site to be handed over to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which used to occupy it.

The building in Kirkuk had served as the headquarters for the KDP in the past but the Iraqi army has used as a base since 2017.

The central government plans to return the building to the KDP in a show of goodwill but Arab and Turkmen opponents set up a camp outside the building to protest the handover last week.

The violence on Saturday was sparked when a group of Kurdish protesters approached the camp, according to officials.

The AFP news agency reported that police deployed to the area fired warning shots to force the Kurdish demonstrators to disperse.

On Sunday morning General Jabbar Naeema al-Taee, Kirkuk’s top security official, told AFP that the building at the centre of the tensions was “under the control of the army” of Iraq and the sit-in was over.

On Saturday, Masoud Barzani, a veteran Kurdish leader, accused “rioters” of blocking the highway from Kirkuk to Erbil, the Kurdish capital, with their sit-in.

He said this was “creating a tense and dangerous situation for residents”.

Barzani said it was “surprising” that security forces had not prevented “the chaos and illegal behaviour of those blocking the road”, while on Saturday, “violence was used against Kurdish youth and demonstrators”.

Iraqi protesters block a road following protests in the multi-ethnic Iraqi city of Kirkuk on September 2, 2023. - At least one civilian was killed and eight people were injured

Kirkuk, a flashpoint oil-rich province in northern Iraq along the fault lines between the Kurdish autonomous region and areas controlled by Iraq’s Shia-dominated central government, has been the focus of some of the country’s worst post-ISIL (ISIS) violence.

Kurdish forces controlled Kirkuk city after driving ISIL out in 2014 but were ejected by the Iraqi army in 2017, bringing the city back under Baghdad’s control.

When al-Sudani took power last year, he worked to improve relations between his government and the KDP and agreed to allow the party to reopen its headquarters in Kirkuk.

But Arab residents and minority groups who said they suffered under Kurdish rule, such as the Turkmen, have protested the KDP’s return.

“This incident comes at a critical time, while authorities in Baghdad and the semi-autonomous Kurdish region engage in talks to resolve several unsettled issues including the federal budget, a dispute over oil exports and the disarming of anti-Iran armed groups in the north,” Al Jazeera’s Mahmoud Abdel-Wahed said, reporting from Baghdad.

“If the situation in Kirkuk now gets out of control, it could add to Iraq’s already long list of political troubles.”