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Iraq: Kirkuk Referendum Delayed By Six Months

Iraq's Kurdish officials reluctantly accepted a UN proposal calling for a six-month extension to implement Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution in mid-December, despite warnings from Kurdish lawmakers that failure to implement the article would be considered a direct violation of their rights under the constitution.

Article 140 refers to the normalization of Kirkuk, a highly contested multiethnic governorate with a capital city of the same name that contains vast oil reserves. Under the Arabization campaign launched in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein displaced thousands of Kurds from Kirkuk and relocated Shi'ite Arab families to the area in an effort to change the demographic landscape of the historically Kurdish-majority governorate.

Since the overthrow of the regime, the Kurdistan regional government has pushed for the return of Kurds to Kirkuk and the incorporation of the governorate into the Kurdish region. The transitional administrative law, issued by the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2004, which served as the precursor to the Iraqi constitution, called for a normalization process to be carried out in Kirkuk, allowing Kurds displaced by Hussein to return to Kirkuk and repatriating Arabs back to their hometowns in the south, with compensation. Kirkuk is also home to a large indigenous Turkoman population, whose leaders claim has no desire to join the Kurdish region.

Under Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution ratified in late 2005, the Iraqi government must complete the normalization process, hold a census to determine the breakdown of the population according to ethnicity, and hold a referendum on the status of Kirkuk "a date not to exceed the 31st of December 2007."

The new extension allows the Higher Committee for the Implementation of Article 140 and the Iraqi Independent Electoral Commission much-needed time to prepare for a referendum in the governorate of Kirkuk that will determine whether the governorate will join the Kurdish autonomous region.

UN Special Representative to Iraq Steffan de Mistura appealed to the Iraqi parliament to accept the delay on December 17, saying the extension would not affect the content of Article 140. "Your reaction should be dictated by reason and not by passion. If not, everyone will suffer the consequences of it," de Mistura told parliamentarians.

Kurds Miffed By Delays

Many senior Kurdish officials voiced public support for the extension, saying it was not a reason for concern. Regional Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani told reporters in Al-Najaf on December 17 following a meeting with Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani that the extension was a "positive step." Barzani's comments followed a week-long visit to Baghdad that included meetings with senior Iraqi officials including Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi on a host of issues, including the issue of Kirkuk.

Iraq's two leading Kurdish parties have invested substantial time and money over the past two years to facilitate the demographic correction, building houses and paying Kurds to move to Kirkuk. The six-month delay will only aid that process thereby contributing to the Kurdish demographic majority, a point not lost on Kirkuk's ethnic Turkoman and Arab minorities.

But some Kurdish leaders contend that the government seeks to renege on the constitutional provision. Kamal Kirkukly, deputy speaker of the Kurdish regional parliament expressed frustration over the six-month extension telling the Kurdish newspaper "Jamawar" that Baghdad obstructed the implementation of Article 140. "My own personal belief is that any delay or extension would not aim at finding a right time for its implementation but to find more excuses and obstacles to prevent implementation forever," Kikukly said in the interview published on December 17. "An extension by six months, ten months, or 100 months will not change this reality," Kirkukly claimed.

Continuing, he argued: "We firmly believe that real obstacles were made to prevent the [Higher Committee for the Implementation of Article 140] from completing its work. It was possible to hold a Kirkuk referendum on time. From 2003 to 2005, it was possible to hold two elections and one referendum [on the constitution] in Iraq. Why was it not possible to hold a referendum [on Kirkuk] from 2003 to 2007, which was limited to only a few specific places in Iraq and not the whole of Iraq," he asked.

Representatives of the sizable Turkoman and Shi'ite Arab population in the governorate have said their constituencies have no desire to join the Kurdish region. Many Turkoman and Arabs accused the Kurdish parties of threat and intimidation. The Governorate Council, which ceased to function two years ago, only began to resolve its issues in recent weeks, after the Arab members of the council agreed to end their boycott and return to work on December 4. Turkoman representatives are continuing their boycott.

Turkoman politician Hasan Turhan told the Kurdish website "Rozhnama" in an interview published December 5 that the Kurdish parties have worked to sideline and alienate Turkomans in Kirkuk and other areas of Iraq. Turhan, who is a member of the Turkoman Justice Party and the Iraqi Turkoman Front, holds one of the Turkomans boycotted governorate council seats. He opposes joining the Kurdish autonomous region and says he and his supporters prefer Kirkuk be turned into an independent region jointly administered by Kurdish and Turkoman leaders. He contended that many Kurds in Kirkuk also support the establishment of an independent region for the governorate.

Turkoman Front leader Ahmet Muratly, the front's representative to Turkey told Anatolia news agency in comments published on December 19 that the delay will only seek to benefit the Kurds. "Kurdish groups have driven Kirkuk into a deadlock with the mistakes they made," he said referring to the political tensions plaguing the city. Muratly contended that the Kurds altered the demographic landscape by bringing 650,000 Kurds to Kirkuk from the Kurdish region and from neighboring countries.

Sending A Message To Kurds?

If Kurdish officials felt snubbed by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to Kirkuk this week, the tried not to show it. Kurdish media outlets ran reports indicating regional president Mas'ud Barzani refused to meet with Rice because the U.S. had allegedly given Turkey the green light to launch airstrikes on Turkish-Kurdish separatists in the mountains of northern Iraq, which Barzani said led to the death of civilians.

Rice met with local officials during her brief trip to the capital city, but did not hold separate meeting with the KRG, leading some observers to speculate she was sending a message to the Kurds over their designs for Kirkuk. Rice reportedly told local leaders in a closed meeting that the United States supports the UN proposal for a six-month extension and called on local leaders to find a political solution to Kirkuk, Governorate Council member Ahmad al-Askari told the website PUK media. "It is an important province for the future of Iraq, for a democratic Iraq, an Iraq that can be for all people," AP quoted Rice as saying ahead of the meeting.

In a press conference alongside de Mistura on December 18, Rice told reporters that the UN is well-placed "to provide the kind of technical expertise and technical efforts that are needed to help [the people of Kirkuk] move forward." Rice said she was pleased with the UN decision "to help the people [of Kirkuk] to resolve some of the differences that they have there, to look at the questions of the – a way forward so that all Iraqis in the Kirkuk province can feel that they have a future in the new Iraq."

Kurds Need To Assuage Fears

While UN, U.S. and Iraqi leaders have contended the delay in implementing Article 140 is solely due to technical reasons, there is no question that many fear ethnic tensions in Kirkuk could erupt into extreme violence over implementation of the article. Shi'ite and Sunni Arabs across the country fear the KRG could one day seize Kirkuk's vast oil reserves – which under the constitution are the property of the central government – and declare independence from the rest of Iraq. Ongoing disputes between the KRG and Iraqi Oil Minister Husayn al-Shahristani over Kurdish rights to drill inside the Kurdish region only compound that fear.

Turkey, which supports Kirkuk's ethnic Turkoman population, also fears Kurds would use Kirkuk's wealth to declare independence from Iraq. Moreover, Turks fear, the establishment of a Kurdish state, would likely trigger political instability in Turkey's Kurdish-populated south, which has long-rallied for autonomy from Ankara.

If the UN is to guide Iraq's contesting parties to a resolution, it must push for greater dialogue among the parties. But perhaps more important, it must seek a resolution to outstanding issues such as the draft oil law, which delineates the rights and obligations of the parties in the sharing of Iraq's natural resources.

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