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Ethnic tensions are heating up in Kirkuk, the center of northern Iraq’s oil industry, ahead of an independence referendum that the Kurdistan Regional Government has slated for September 25. Kirkuk, a multi-ethnic city, is the key to the control of the region’s oil riches— and Baghdad has indicated more than once that it has no intention of letting its control slip and fall entirely in the hands of the Kurdish government.
The city lies outside the boundaries of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region, and Baghdad and Erbil have been locked in a dispute over whose claim to the city is the legitimate one for years. Iraq’s claim is that the city and surrounding oil fields are not part of its territory. Yet it was the Kurdish Peshmerga forces that kept the city from falling into the hands of Islamic State in 2014, cutting the terrorists’ access to its beloved oil.
Earlier this month, Reuters notes, the provincial council voted to include Kirkuk in the independence vote, which sparked inter-ethnic tensions. These yesterday led to clashes that left one dead and three wounded and prompted the deployment of police forces in the city.
Tensions will only continue to rise in the runup to the vote. The KRG is facing stiff international opposition to the referendum, with Western European powers, the U.S. and UN all arguing that a referendum would distract the Iraqis and the Kurds from the fight against IS, which has not yet been completely dislodged from the region.
Related: The Kurdish Referendum Could Reshape Oil Markets
Baghdad has already called the vote unconstitutional and a prelude to the break-up of Iraq. Shi’ite militias are threatening to drive the Peshmerga out of Kirkuk if the vote goes as planned.
Interestingly enough, it seems not all Kurds are in favor of the referendum, according to Al-Monitor. Author Kamal Chomani wrote in June this year the referendum is seen as a “political card” aimed at moving control over the Kirkuk oil fields from the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com
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Irina is a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry.