Kurdish Official Forbidden to Speak Kurdish at Kirkuk Press Conference

Iraqi security forces and volunteers celebrate in front of Governorate Council Building in
AP Photo/Emad Matti

The freshly-appointed interim governor of Kirkuk, Rakan Ali al-Jabouri, held a press conference on his first full day in office Tuesday, at which Kurdish police chief Omar Khatab was asked to speak.

Khatab was also rather forcefully asked not to speak in Kurdish on three different occasions, even when responding to questions asked in that language by a Kurdish reporter.

According to Rudaw’s account of the conference, the first warning to Khatab was issued by Iraqi military commander Ali Fazil Omran, whose forces spent Monday pushing the Kurds out of Kirkuk. “Speak in Arabic,” Omran tersely instructed when Khatab attempted to speak in Kurdish.

“He was prevented from speaking in Kurdish two more times: once when a Turkmen member of the provincial council asked the commander to permit the language and again when answering a question asked in Kurdish by a Rudaw reporter,” Rudaw reports. Eventually, Omran allowed Khatab to speak Kurdish, but only after the formal conclusion of the press conference:

Many Kurds decided to leave when Iran-backed Shiite militias coordinated by professional terrorists began shooting at them on Monday. Watching an Iraqi military commander repeatedly forbid the use of their language at the first press conference held by Baghdad’s top official does not send a welcoming message of cultural and religious inclusion, especially since Kurdish officials have accused Baghdad of waging cultural warfare against them.

Interim Governor Jabouri, who was appointed to his post on Monday by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, urged Kirkuk residents to “return as quickly as possible to protect their properties from looting.” One might suppose it was the duty of the city government and its police forces, augmented by military troops, to prevent looting. Rudaw does not mention whether anyone raised that point at the press conference.

As for Omran, he said his forces have “come not as liberators, but as part of the redeployment of the security installations to the province of Kirkuk.” He said his troops are tasked with protecting “state installations and infrastructure”—for example, the huge oil fields near Kirkuk, which were captured by the Islamic State after it routed the Iraqi army in 2014, recaptured by the Kurds, and now retaken by the Iraqi army.

Two of the local oil fields shut down on Monday after Kurdish forces came under attack, and greater disruptions in production may be yet to come. The Kurdistan Region Government controls the major pipeline from Kirkuk’s fields to Turkey. The pipeline was reportedly open as of Tuesday, but escalating tensions between the KRG and Baghdad leave its future uncertain.

Abadi was blunt in explaining on Monday that military forces were sent to secure Kirkuk and its oil fields “to protect the unity of the country, which was in danger of partition” due to the Kurdish independence referendum.

“We call upon all citizens to co-operate with our heroic armed forces, which are committed to our strict directives to protect civilians in the first place, and to impose security and order, and to protect state installations and institutions,” Abadi said.

An Al-Jazeera op-ed by Talha Abdulrazaq of the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute argues that Abadi effectively checkmated Kurdish independence by seizing the Kirkuk oil fields with such a quick and overwhelming move, quite literally while Kurdish leaders were walking away from conference tables.

Whatever comes next, independence-minded Kurds will have to make do without Kirkuk’s oil, which will ruin whatever economic calculations they might have been making. Abdulrazaq has difficulty imagining KRG President Masoud Barzani making an equitable peace deal with Abadi that includes Kurdish independence without Kirkuk oil.

Abdulrazaq argues that Kirkuk was the perfect spot for Baghdad and Tehran to apply pressure against “Kurdish factionalism” to undermine the drive for independence, noting that Peshmerga units loyal to the opposition KRG party quickly withdrew before the advance of the Iraqi military and Iran-controlled Shiite militia, in some cases before the advance truly began. Charges of betrayal are already flying between the two major parties, while Baghdad touts the alleged threat of a third party, the banned PKK separatists, to bring NATO member Turkey into the mix.

Turkey’s concerns add to American fears about Iraq falling apart—seen by many as a disastrous outcome after years of expensive and bloody American work to nourish a functional democracy—to keep Washington on the sidelines. Abdulrazaq speculates that the Trump administration will draw a line if Baghdad and Tehran push too hard against the Kurds; U.S. policy seems to envision a “reset” to the pre-Islamic State status quo. It most certainly does not envision the Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi Army blasting away at each other with American weapons.

Independence-minded Kurds have pointed to Iran’s involvement in the campaign against them, but it was not enough to make the Trump administration openly side with them.

It might have been enough to keep the administration officially neutral since a good deal of the foreign policy apparatus really wants to keep Iraq in one piece. In a bitter irony, that might require keeping the Kurds as part of Iraq to balance Iran’s influence in Baghdad. A Kurdish state without Kirkuk’s oil won’t be strong enough to get that job done, especially since it would come at the cost of pronounced instability with Turkey.

The Kurds might just have one card left to play, if Baghdad keeps pushing them and produces a few more scenes of Iraqi officials telling Kurds not to speak Kurdish: They could talk about racism and ethnic cleansing. It is a topic that has been known to get the attention of the international community from time to time.


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