KIRKUK, Iraq - Hundreds of Turkmen and Kurdish students clashed on Monday in Iraq’s disputed northern city of Kirkuk after Turkmen students tried to hold a ceremony to mark the deaths of Turkmen killed under Saddam Hussein.
Kirkuk, which sits above large oil reserves and is ethnically divided between Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs, is a flashpoint of conflict at a time when most of the rest of Iraq has become less violent.
Nine students and three policemen were wounded in the clashes at Kirkuk Technical Institute, according to sources at Kirkuk’s hospital and its military operations centre. A Reuters reporter at the scene said riot police had been deployed and the city’s police chief arrived to separate the fighting sides.
The fighting broke out when Turkmen students sought to hold a ceremony to honour their dead. A similar ceremony was held last week to honour Kurds killed under Saddam in a 1988 poison gas attack in the town of Halabja.
“A few days ago Kurds were marking the events of Halabja, and we did nothing to stop them. Today we have a day for Turkmen martyrs, and they prevented us from observing it because they are racist,” said Turkmen student Aydin Mohammed, 19.
Ahmed Kareem, 20, a Kurdish student, blamed “people from outside the institute” for fomenting the violence.
“We don’t have any problem with the Turkmen students. They asked us if they could carry their flags and we don’t have a problem. But shots were fired and Kurdish students became upset. After that there were harsh words and that developed into fighting. People who were not students created this problem.”
Deputy police chief Torhan Abdulrahman told Reuters the situation had been resolved and the violence surpressed.
Kirkuk’s status is one of Iraq’s thorniest political issues. Kurds would like to add Kirkuk to their nearby semi-autonomous region, but Arabs and Turkmen in the city oppose this.
Iraq is far less violent than it was at the height of sectarian fighting between Sunnis and Shi’ites in 2006-07, but insurgents still launch scores of bomb and gun attacks each week, mainly against Iraqi security forces.