Negotiations are underway between the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) over the planned Kurdistan independence referendum, scheduled for Sept. 25. Numerous international powers oppose the referendum — including the United States, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Iran, Germany and other EU powers — and pressure is mounting on KRG President Massoud Barzani to delay the referendum. Meanwhile, Barzani is trying to turn popular approval among Iraqi Kurds for the referendum into a mandate that will improve his bargaining position. But the rallying support — and opposition — is bringing a political charge that's already spilled over into violence and could do so again.
The prospective referendum includes territories that the central government in Iraq and the KRG both claim as their own. As political negotiations continue, the security situation in the disputed territories is tense and risks escalating. In one such province, Diyala, Iranian-backed Shiite militias recently tried to claim territory, with militia leaders saying that the Kurds had no right to it. In Kirkuk province (which is more valuable than Diyala in part because of its oil reserves), not only do both the Iraqi and Kurdish governments lay claim to overlapping portions of the province, but outside powers Turkey and Iran also claim some degree of ownership and maintain ties to militia forces on the ground.
On Sept. 18, clashes erupted in Kirkuk between Kurdish paramilitary forces and Turkmen, resulting in the death of one Kurdish fighter and the wounding of a total of five men from both sides. As of Sept. 19, a nighttime curfew had been issued in Kirkuk to quell the violence and circumvent an escalation. Earlier the same day, in a pro-referendum rally in Kirkuk, provincial Governor Najmiddin Karim made an appearance in support of Kurdistan independence, underlining the political tension in the province. Many Kirkuk residents, particularly Arabs and Turkmen, do not support the referendum. Because neither Baghdad nor Arbil wields ultimate power over the militia forces scattered throughout the province, there is the risk further clashes will occur. More unrest could, in turn, invite the deployment of even more military forces — from both the Iraqi government and the KRG — to the province. Going forward, Kirkuk will be a province to watch as a bellwether for the mounting risk of violence over the upcoming referendum.