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Kurd Flag Raising Adds To Tensions In The Iraqi City Of Kirkuk


So the balance of power in Iraq is so delicate right now that when a new flag goes up, it causes ripples around the region. And that's what happened in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk. It's a multi-ethnic city. Kurdish leaders in the north and Arab leaders in Baghdad have competed over it for decades. The rise of ISIS and the war against it has tipped the balance. NPR's Jane Arraf spoke to the Kurdish government who raised the new flags and the tensions.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: This is the outdoor market in the ancient heart of Kirkuk. Almost all the stall owners call out prices in three languages - Arabic, Turkmen and Kurdish. There are also Assyrian Christians here. It's been a multi-ethnic city for centuries. It's officially part of central Iraq.

And since Iraq was created, government buildings have flown an Iraqi flag. But Kirkuk's governor, a Kurd, created a stir in April by raising the Kurdish flag next to it. Governor Najmiddin Karim says Kirkuk is part of Kurdistan. And since ISIS came in, Kurdish Peshmerga forces have fought and died for it.

NAJMIDDIN KARIM: Everybody - Turkmen, Arabs, Christians were protected by the Peshmerga who are fighting under this flag. All the resources that's in Kirkuk - the oil, the gas, the electrical grids - everything has been protected by the Peshmerga forces.

ARRAF: Kurds had already largely controlled the city, but the flag-raising has raised concerns that the Kurds are using the fight against ISIS as an excuse to cement their hold. From the roof of the governor's house, you can see flares from the oil fields that are one reason why everyone wants Kirkuk. The region is estimated to have 4 percent of the entire world's oil reserves. Power here is complicated by the city's ethnic mix and by its history.

KARIM: This is Kirkuk before 1976.

ARRAF: Governor Karim shows me maps of a much bigger Kirkuk region before Saddam Hussein expelled Kurds, Turkmen and Christian residents and replaced them with Arabs.


ARRAF: One of the biggest Kurdish flags now flies about Kirkuk Citadel, an ancient stone fortress looking out over the city. This part of the city was originally Turkmen. Hassan Toran, a Turkmen member of Parliament, says by raising the flag, Kurds have preempted a long-promised referendum called for in Iraq's constitution. He says the Kurds are using the ISIS threat to seize control and dividing Kirkuk when it needs to unite.

HASSAN TORAN: Why the Kurdish side in this time trying to make the people feel or think or discuss another issue which is the flag issue instead of discussing and working together?

ARRAF: Iraqi Turkmen are ethnically Turkish. Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, warned that Iraqi Kurds would pay a heavy price if they didn't lower the flag over Kirkuk. And Iraq's Arab-dominated Parliament condemned the flag move, but Arabs are weaker in northern Iraq since the rise of ISIS. Ramla Abdul Hamid Ahmad is an Arab member of the local council.

RAMLA ABDUL HAMID AHMAD: (Through interpreter) It is true that the situation of the Arabs after June 2014 has changed, but there is a very high percentage of Arabs in Kirkuk. And this population must be taken into consideration.

ARRAF: In the market below the citadel, many say they'll support anyone who can help them make a living. For Kurdish leaders, their flag over Kirkuk was a dream. The war against ISIS has helped make it reality. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Kirkuk.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLACK MILK'S "WHEN THE SKY FALLS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.