Police deployed overnight in the northern Iraqi oil city of Kirkuk to prevent any outbreak of ethnic violence ahead of a referendum on Kurdish independence strongly opposed by the Baghdad government, local residents said.
The Kurdish region plans to hold the Sept. 25 vote despite an Iraqi government warning it is “playing with fire” and U.S. declarations the move could undermine the fight against Islamic State militants. The referendum could raise particular tension in Kirkuk, where Kurds vie with Turkmen and Arabs for power.
Kurdish security and the city police erected checkpoints across Kirkuk after a Kurd was killed in a clash with the guards of a Turkmen political party office in the city.
Two other Kurds and a Turkmen security guard were wounded in the clash that broke out when a Kurdish convoy celebrating the referendum, carrying Kurdish flags, drove by the Turkmen party office, according to security sources. The Kurdish dead and wounded were among those celebrating, they said.
Turkey, which has put troops and tanks on exercises close to the border with the Kurdish region, has long seen itself as the protector of Iraq’s Turkmen minority. When Iraqi Kurds raised their flag over the city in April, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan declared that Kirkuk could not be a Kurdish city.
Turkish soldiers, scheduled for maneuvers the day after the referendum is due, were spotted digging in at a point about two km (a mile) from the frontier.
But Ankara has cultivated close political and business ties with the Kurdish regional government, and would be loath to disrupt commerce, especially in oil, through any intervention.
Kurdish peshmerga fighters prevented Kirkuk’s oilfields from falling into Islamic State hands when they seized the city and other disputed territories when the Iraqi army collapsed in the face of an IS advance in 2014. In recent months, IS has been driven back across Iraq, but remains dug in close to Kirkuk.
Iraqi armed forces announced on Tuesday the start of an attack to dislodge Islamic State from the town of Ana as they push westward toward al-Qaim, the border post with Syria.
Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi‘ite Muslim militias, highlighting the broader perils emanating from the vote, have threatened to dislodge peshmerga forces from Kirkuk should the Kurds persist in holding the vote.
The Kurdish authorities are showing no sign of bowing despite intense international pressure and regional appeals to call off the vote, which Baghdad says is unconstitutional and a prelude to breaking up the country.
The United States has been a close ally of the Kurds but it is not clear whether Washington’s opposition to the vote could persuade them to call off the vote.
Friction between the Kurdish autonomous region and Baghdad has simmered for years. The Kurds have complained that the central government has not paid the salaries of civil servants in Kurdistan, while Baghdad has strongly opposed Kurdish sales of oil without its consent.
On Tuesday, Kirkuk’s provincial council voted to reject an Iraqi parliament vote last week to dismiss governor Najmaddin Kareem.
The decision to remove him came after Kirkuk – claimed by both the Baghdad and regional Kurdish governments – voted to take part in the referendum.
Iran and Turkey fear contagion for their own Kurdish populations. Turkey has been fighting a Kurdish insurgency in its southeast since 1984
Iraqi Kurdish President Massoud Barzani said late on Monday he would proceed with the vote in the absence of any international guarantee that Baghdad would hold talks on Kurdish independence,
“Referendum and dialogue are means toward independence,” Barzani told visiting British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon, during a meeting in Erbil, seat of the Kurdish government.
Iraq has been struggling to find a formula for stability since a U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, unleashing sectarian tensions that triggered a civil war.
Although U.S.-backed Iraqi forces have dislodged Islamic State from its urban stronghold of Mosul and dashed its dreams of a caliphate, security officials say the jihadists will now wage guerrilla war in a new attempt to destabilize Iraq.
Three people were killed and 34 injured after two suicide bombers targeted a restaurant on the road between the northern towns of Tikrit and Beiji on Tuesday, the Interior Ministry said. Security forces killed a third suicide bomber outside the restaurant.