The following article was originally published in Vocativ.
In a controversial move boycotted by Iraqis of other ethnicities who call the oil-rich city home, Kurds in Kirkuk won council approval Tuesday to raise the Kurdish flag over government buildings. Local media reported that Turkmen and Arabs who also make up the population of the northern Iraqi city were absent for the session of the Kirkuk Provincial Council that approved the resolution.
Kirkuk has been a hotly-contested prize between Arab and Kurd for decades. The Kurds view Kirkuk as part of any independent state they hope to carve out in the future, while Arabs believe it should remain part of Iraq. During his rule, Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein deliberately removed Kurds from the city of Kirkuk and populated it with Arabs to overhaul the city’s ethnic makeup. Since he was ousted in 2003, the Kurds have worked relentlessly to shift back thousands of Kurds to settle in the city and eventually outweigh any other voting bloc. They hope to force a referendum to have the city unite with Iraqi Kurdistan, something politicians in Baghdad are reluctant to allow the oil-rich city to do.
The United Nations has warned that such a move “might jeopardize harmony and peaceful coexistence” between ethnic groups in the Kurdish region. Neighboring Turkey, which has been fighting its own insurgency with Turkish Kurds, criticized the decision, calling it “disconcerting.”
Members of the Iraqi Turkmen Front warned that “Kirkuk is a fire that if ignited will burn everyone,” Rudaw reported. Khalid Mafraji, an Arab MP for Kirkuk, said the city is “still part of the [Iraqi] central government” and that raising the Kurdish flag over Kirkuk would violate Iraq’s constitution.
When Islamic State fighters took over nearby Mosul, they threatened to reach Kirkuk too, and the fleeing Iraqi security forces who abandoned Mosul took flight from Kirkuk as well in 2014. It was soon, however, secured by Kurdish Peshmerga, who have since consolidated their hold on the city and will reluctant to give it up to central Iraqi rule.