A curfew has been imposed in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk following violent clashes between Arab and Kurdish protesters that left one civilian dead and eight others wounded. The unrest was sparked by a dispute over the control of a local security headquarters, which was reportedly handed over to a Kurdish party.
Prime Minister Mohamed Shia al-Sudani ordered the curfew and “extensive security operations in the areas affected by the riots”, according to a statement from his office on Saturday. He also urged all parties to “play their part in preventing strife and preserving security, stability and order in Kirkuk Governorate”.
Kirkuk, an oil-rich region, has historically been contested between the federal government in Baghdad and the authorities in the autonomous Kurdish region in the north. In 2014, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and its armed wing, the Peshmerga, took over Kirkuk after the Iraqi army fled from the advance of the Islamic State group. However, in 2017, federal troops expelled them from the city after a failed referendum on Kurdish independence.
The latest tensions erupted after Arab residents blocked a major highway for days to protest against the alleged handover of the headquarters of local Iraqi security forces to the KDP. The KDP is led by Masoud Barzani, the former president of the Kurdish region and a key ally of al-Sudani.
On Saturday, Kurdish demonstrators tried to reach the security headquarters, but were met by police who fired warning shots to disperse them. The situation quickly escalated into violent confrontations, with both sides throwing stones and setting vehicles on fire. A local health official said that one civilian was killed and eight people were injured by bullets, stones or glass. He added that a member of the security forces was among the wounded.
The identity and the circumstances of the death were not immediately clear. Some sources said that the victim was an Arab protester who was shot by Kurdish gunmen, while others claimed that he was a Kurdish bystander who was hit by a stray bullet.
Despite a history of rocky relations and tensions, al-Sudani’s government has generally maintained cordial ties with Erbil, the Kurdish capital. He has also sought to balance the interests of various ethnic and religious groups in Kirkuk, which is home to Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and Christians. However, his efforts have been challenged by political rivalries, security threats and economic woes.
The curfew in Kirkuk is expected to last until further notice, as security forces try to restore calm and prevent further escalation. The incident has raised fears of renewed instability and violence in a city that has witnessed decades of bloodshed and turmoil.