A homeless Arab man at a refugee camp in the Kurdistan Region, where thousands have arrived since the fall of Mosul a fortnight ago.
KIRKUK – Kurdish authorities controlling the city of Kirkuk since mass Iraqi army desertions report large numbers of Arab refugees trying to move into the city, including men they fear could become “sleeping cells” of militants.
Kamil Salayi, mayor of Kirkuk's central district, said that 25,000 Arab refugees had arrived since insurgents led by the extremist Sunni Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) began a lightning advance a fortnight ago, conquering cities and closing in on Baghdad, where they aim to topple the Shiite-led government.
“Last week, on Tuesday and Wednesday alone, 400 Arab families moved into the center of Kirkuk, and more people are coming every day,” said Salayi, adding that hordes of refugees had come from the fallen city of Mosul, while others were moving in from Kirkuk’s outskirts.
After insurgents seized Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, waves of frightened residents fled for the safety of the northern autonomous Kurdistan Region, the only peaceful and prospering portion of Iraq.
But Kurdish authorities did not allow all to enter, setting up temporary camps near checkpoints, as the UN office in Kirkuk evaluates whether to set up proper camps, Salayi said.
Mosul, Tikrit and other cities and towns have fallen to the insurgents following the collapse and withdrawal of Iraqi army forces from large parts of the country.
The autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), meanwhile, moved its Peshmerga forces into large swaths of Kurdish-populated territories that are outside its official borders but were abandoned by Iraqi soldiers. That includes the city of Kirkuk.
The Kurds see Kirkuk as the capital of a future state, but Iraq’s majority Shiites also lay claim to the oil-rich prize. Whether Kirkuk would opt to become part of Kurdistan or the central government was supposed to be decided in a 2007 referendum that has yet to take place.
US Secretary of State John Kerry was in the Kurdistan capital of Erbil on Tuesday to try and urge the Kurds to not quit the political process in Baghdad and opt for independence, now that they have Kirkuk. He was to leave for NATO meetings in Brussels, after several hours in Erbil.
Salayi said that the arrival of Arab families would impact the future of the multi-ethnic city.
“We have met the refugees and some of them were single young men,” he said. “When we asked them about the whereabouts of their families, they told us that they went to Baghdad. Many people might have come in that way.”
An official in Kirkuk told Rudaw, “Some families are entering the city without passing through the checkpoints.”
Kirkuk’s demography was transformed by intense relocation campaigns under Saddam Hussein’s ousted regime, when many Kurds and Turkmen were moved out to other parts of the country and replaced by Arabs who were brought in.
Authorities say that Kirkuk’s Arab population swelled after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam, and again during the height of Iraq’s sectarian conflict in 2006-2007.
Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom the insurgents have vowed to oust, had previously stated that any family living in Kirkuk for 10 years can claim residence. But Kurdish officials had said that could not be.
“These refugees are like time bombs threatening the future of the city,” said an official in Kirkuk, speaking to Rudaw on condition of anonymity.
He claimed that the insurgents had sleeping cells inside Mosul, which had helped the rebels take over almost without a fight.
“There is no guarantee that these refugees in Kirkuk will not become sleeping cells,” he said. “We have very limited information about these individuals.”