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Iraq: Kurdish Victory In Kirkuk Raises Ethnic Tensions

  • Charles Recknagel

Iraqi Kurds with Kurdish flag (file photo) Iraqi Kurds have won a majority of seats on the provincial council for the northern region that includes the tense, ethnically diverse city of Kirkuk. The oil-rich area is home to Kurds, to Turkomans, and to several hundred thousand Arabs settled in the north of Iraq by Saddam Hussein. In the runup to the local vote, the rival ethnic groups fought bitterly over whether displaced Kurds returning to Kirkuk would be allowed to cast their ballots, and all sides threatened boycotts to press their points. Now, as the dust settles, can Kirkuk's different groups put their disputes behind them?

Prague, 15 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Kurdish residents of Kirkuk have been in a celebratory mood ever since the results for the provincial council election were announced on 13 February.

Hundreds of Kurds took to the streets of the city as the news came in that their candidates had taken control of some 60 percent of the council seats. The news coincided with word from the Iraqi Independent Election Commission that a Kurdish coalition had also won some 26 percent of the vote for the new National Assembly in Baghdad.

But if Kurds were pleased, their rivals in the local poll were not.

"We denounce the results," Farouq Abdullah, head of the Iraqi Turkoman Front, told Reuters on 13 February. "We have already informed the election commission of our objections to the irregularities the Kurds committed in Kirkuk."

Arab and Christian parties in the city also expressed dissatisfaction.

The local election was hard fought in Kirkuk because it sought to divide the different ethnic groups' representation on the provincial council according to a popular vote. Prior to the poll, the council seats had been divided equally among Kirkuk's population groups, including Kurds, Turkomans, Sunni Arabs, and the much smaller Assyrian Christian community.

Hiwa Osman, a regional expert and journalist working in northern Iraq with the London-based Institute of War and Peace Reporting, told RFE/RL that the equal-share formula -- instituted during the former U.S.-civil administration of Iraq -- had satisfied no one.

"Every population group in Kirkuk thought that they were the majority and the others were the minority," he said. "Nobody was satisfied with [having a] share equal to the others. That's why, because nobody was satisfied with the actual rate of representation, everybody was seeing it as just a [public relations] exercise and not as a problem-solving council."

How Will The Losers React?

But the debate over the election results raises the question of how well the losers will accept the Kurds' new control of the body.

In the run-up to the poll, the Kurds threatened to boycott the election unless election officials gave voting rights to some 100,000 formerly displaced Kurds of voting age who have returned to the city. The Kurds were displaced under Saddam to make room for Sunni Arabs as part of his efforts to forcibly alter the region's ethnic balance amid conflicts with Kurdish leaders.

The Independent Election Commission accepted the Kurds' demand but over the objections of the other communities. Turkoman and Sunni Arab groups charged the Kurdish leaders with trying to alter the city's population balance as part of their hopes for one day bringing it into the Kurdish-administered area of northern Iraq. Kurdish leaders refer to the oil-rich city as the natural capital of their region in a future federal Iraq.

It remains unclear how many Turkoman and Arab voters stayed home on 30 January in protest of the election commission's decision. The picture may only become clearer as the commission now examines the many complaints of irregularities received from all sides.

The toughest challenges before the new provincial council will be how to settle the thousands of property disputes between formerly displaced Kurds and the mostly Sunni Arabs who were brought in to replace them.

Many of the homes that once belonged to the returning Kurds are now occupied by Arab families. Those families say they now have no means or desire to begin a new life elsewhere.

Osman says the former U.S. civil administration set up a commission to collect property claims and begin the process of resolving them, but that it made little progress.

"The key problem today in Kirkuk is property claims," Osman said. "The Americans tried to set up the Iraqi Property Claims Commission, and it was a complete failure because they only took cases and they did not adjudicate anything."

Tens of thousands of Kurd returnees are now living on the outskirts of the city in makeshift camps after spending a decade or more of taking refuge from Saddam in the Kurdish-administered area. Their presence puts enormous pressure on authorities to resolve the property claims urgently in order to avoid violence.

Charting The Future

The other key problem in Kirkuk is how to chart a future for the city amid competing pressure both within Iraq and from neighboring countries over its fate.

"Every neighbor of Iraq and even other political groups within Iraq think that they should have a finger in the pie of Kirkuk," Osman said.

Just as Iraqi Kurds regard Kirkuk as their historical capital, so do the large number of Turkomans living there consider it their home. The Turkomans trace their arrival in the region from Central Asia to the 11th century and share close linguistic ties with Turkey.

Ankara has often said it is ready to intervene in northern Iraq to protect the rights of the Turkomans and to assure that Kirkuk does not become the Iraqi Kurds' capital.

The threats reflect Ankara's fears that any measures that would give the Iraqi Kurds greater political or financial independence would only encourage Turkey's own Kurdish minority to seek similar rights. Ankara recently suppressed a 15-year rebellion over autonomy demands by the Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
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