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Death toll of Kirkuk clashes rises to 4 as transfer of police headquarters to Kurdish party halted

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

BAGHDAD (AP) — The death toll from clashes that broke out Saturday in the disputed city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq has risen to four, medical officials said Sunday.

Meanwhile, the country's top court issued an order halting the planned handover of the Iraqi federal police headquarters in Kirkuk to the Kurdish Democratic Party, which had sparked tensions 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 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 KDP to the province, which sparked backlash from some communities in Kirkuk.

Last week, a group of local Arab residents closed the Kirkuk-to-Erbil highway in protest over the re-opening of the KDP headquarters. On Saturday, Kurdish protesters demanded the reopening of the highway, sparking tensions with security forces.

Following Saturday's clashes, the reopening of the KDP headquarters was postponed by an order from the prime minister, and the situation appeared to have calmed. The subsequent Iraqi Federal Supreme Court ruling halted the handover of the police headquarters to the KDP until a related lawsuit is resolved.

At a cabinet meeting Sunday, Sudani reiterated orders he had issued to the authorities to investigatie the circumstances surrounding the death of the protesters and “hold all those responsible for the deaths and injuries accountable in accordance with the law.”