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Clashes in Iraq's Kirkuk over handover of police HQ to Kurds leave 1 dead, several injured

This is a locator map for Iraq with its capital, Baghdad. (AP Photo)

BAGHDAD (AP) — Demonstrations in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk over the handover of a key facility from federal to local Kurdish authorities turned violent Saturday, and one protester was killed and several were injured, witnesses and local officials said.

Clashes broke out around the planned handover of the Iraqi federal police headquarters to the Kurdish Democratic Party in the city, which is home to a mixed population of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen.

Federal forces seized Kirkuk and the surrounding oil fields in October 2017 after Kurdish regional authorities organized a symbolic but controversial referendum for Kurdish independence. The KDP vacated its headquarters in the city at the time.

The agreement to form the current government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, included a provision for the return of the Kurdistan Democratic Party to the province.

Last week, a group of Arabs from Kirkuk closed the Kirkuk-to-Erbil highway in protest over the re-opening of the KDP headquarter in Kirkuk. On Saturday, Kurdish residents demanded the reopening of the highway, sparking tensions between the protesters and security forces.

Al-Sudani issued a directive instructing security forces to impose a curfew in Kirkuk as clashes erupted Saturday between KDP supporters, Arab and Turkmen protesters and security forces.

In a statement, Masoud Barzani, the former president of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, decried the violence directed against Kurdish protesters and expressed disappointment with security forces.

“It’s surprising that in the past few days security forces in Kirkuk did not prevent the violence and illegal behavior of some groups but today the Kurdish protesters were faced with violence and (the) blood of Kurdish youth was spilled, and it will carry a heavy price,” the statement said.

In the Kurdish neighborhood of Rahimawa in Kirkuk, protesters blocked roads by setting tires ablaze. Iraqi security forces were deployed to the area to maintain order.

Abdallah Mafarji, a former Sunni Arab member of parliament from Kirkuk, speaking to The Associated Press, expressed concern about the rapidly evolving situation. He criticized al-Sudani's “insistence” on turning the headquarters over to the KDP “as part of a political agreement that preceded the formation of his government” despite the sensitivities around the matter.

Hasan Turan, the leader of the Turkmen Front movement, requested that al-Sudani visit Kirkuk due to the prevailing security tensions.

Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid called for “constructive dialogue” in a statement.

“Kirkuk was and still is a symbol of Iraqi brotherhood and a gathering of all sects, and we will not allow its image to be distorted," he said.

Al-Sudani ordered the formation of an investigative committee to look into the circumstances of the death of one protester and the injury of others, and said that people found culpable will be “brought to justice.”