Iraq: Kurdish-Shiite Struggle for Kirkuk Provokes Violence in Shiite South
Even though most sermons on Friday in Iraq, both Shiite and Sunni, denounced faith-based violence, tensions over religion continued to run high. In the wake of a massive bomb in the holy city of Najaf on Thursday, young Shiite nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr demanded that the Iraqi government dissociate itself from the United States. (Sadr tends to blame the US for such incidents. He not only says that US forces fail to stop such atrocities against Shiites, but often hints around that somehow the US is behind them.)
Angry Shiite crowds ransacked political offices of Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in several southern Shiite cities on Friday. Al-Ittihad, the PUK newspaper, carried an attack on Ayatollah Mustafa Yaqubi recently, blaming him for stirring up tensions between Shiite Arabs and Kurds in the northern oil city of Kirkuk. In Kut, 50 armed men attacked the HQ and burned some of its furniture. There was a demonstration by hundreds of Virtue Party members in Basra.
Al-Zaman reports that angry members of the Virtue Party attacked the party offices of bothe major Kurdish parties in Baghdad and other provincial capitals of the south on Friday. A demonstration was being planned for Hilla. Since the article appeared on Wednesday, excited crowds have attacked Kurdish political offices in Karbala, Nasiriyah and Kut. In Nasiriyah an armed group attacked the PUK HQ and burned the Kurdish flag it was flying. The local party there distributed leaflets demanding that the offending newspaper be permanently closed down.
Talabani expressed his regret for the newspaper article and called for a calming of the situation. A Virtue Party spokesman, Shaikh Sabah al-Sa`idi warned about the consequences on the street of such a defamation of Shiite religious leaders. He met with Talabani, who is also the president of Iraq, on Friday. Talabani denied that he or his political offices had had any prior notice that the al-Ittihad newspaper was going to attack Ayatollah Yaqubi that way “and this despite the bitterness that every Kurd felt about some of the phrases employed in the communique attributed to” the ayatollah.
Reuters says that Talabani’s statement was enough to convince the demonstrators in Basra to go home.
The oil fields of Kirkuk can produce half a million barrels a day under good circumstances, a pretty sum at today’s prices. Kirkuk is a city of roughly 600,000. About half the population is Kurdish, about a third is Turkmen, and the rest is Arab. (The Kurdish proportion is growing rapidly as Kurds flood into the city, many as returnees but some as new immigrants). Kurds hope that the growing Kurdish majority in the province will allow them to win a December, 2007, referendum on whether Kirkuk should join the Kurdistan Regional Confederacy (the united administration of Irbil, Dohuk and Sulaymaniyah provinces). Some Arabs are locals, but many were brought to Kirkuk by Saddam Hussein as part of an “Arabization” project. Many of the immigrants were from the Shiite south and are followers of the teachings of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr (d. 1999). The Sadrist movement he began has two major branches, that of Muqtada al-Sadr (his son) and the Fadhila Party (Virtue Party) of Ayatollah Muhammad Yaqubi. Many of the Turkmen in Kirkuk are also Shiites, and many of them are also Sadrists.
The Arabs and the Turkmen mostly oppose the annexation of Kirkuk by the Kurds. Kurdish anxiety about whether they will be able to pull off this important addition to their semi-autonomous confederacy probably lay behind the attack on Yaqubi, who rejects the idea.
As the December, 2007 date approaches for the Kirkuk referendum, such ethnic and sectarian violence over the isssue is likely to increase. As the events of Thursday and Friday showed, the Kirkuk controvery will not stay local.
More Shiite unrest in Basra involving Fadhila:
Al-Zaman reports that informed sources told it yesterday that an Iraqi army patrol discovered hundreds of katyusha rockets and mortars and firearms manufactured in Iran buried in three places in the Hurra district of the Umm Qasr quarter, Basra.
Friday, Basra was the scene of firefights between followers of the Shiite leader Sayyid Mahmud al-Hasani al-Sarkhi of Karbala and followers of Ayatollah Muhammad Yaqubi of Najaf. An American official once said in the press of al-Hasani al-Sarkhi, ‘ “He is a mixture of a criminal and a lunatic who believes he has a hotline to God … He had set up checkpoints in Karbala to fleece money out of people.’ When he was criticized in the Iranian press recently, his followers burned down the Iranian consulate in Basra.
Al-Hasani al-Sarkhi and Yaqubi have been having a shouting match over who, between the two of them, is most learned. Al-Zaman says its sources tell it that followers of al-Sarkhi attacked offices of the Fadhila Party (which regards Yaqubi as its spiritual guide). There were deaths and injuries among activists on both sides as a result of these clashes. The security atmosphere in the city had already become tense because the local governing council had rejected the attempt of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to deprive it of security responsibilities in favor of the federal troops. On Friday, al-Maliki refused to meet a delegation of members of the Basra provincial governing council who came up to Baghadad in hopes of dialoguing with him.