BAGHDAD - Ethnic tension and violence could erupt if decisions on the future of the ethnically-mixed city of Kirkuk are imposed without agreement among its residents, an analyst said on 17 August.
“I do believe that the best solution for Kirkuk is that it be run as a separate region - after resolving all pending issues between its segments, conducting a census and then letting its population determine its fate through a referendum, instead of one party imposing a solution,” Amer Hassan al-Fayadh, a lecturer at Baghdad university, told IRIN.
Oil-rich Kirkuk lies just outside the autonomous region of Kurdistan. A referendum on the city’s status was supposed to be held no later than 31 December 2007 but was shelved after Arabs and Turkomans accused the Kurds of flooding the city with their ethnic kin.
No-one knows the city’s current ethnic breakdown. A planned census is opposed by Arabs and Turkomans, who are also against the incorporation of Kirkuk into the autonomous Kurdistan region. According to the Election Commission, Kirkuk’s population is 1.2 million.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Saddam Hussein’s government carried out an “Arabisation” policy whereby pro-government Arabs, particularly Shias from the impoverished south, were moved into the region and Kurds were pushed out.
After the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Kirkuk was seen as a time-bomb, as many former residents of the city - Kurds and other non-Arabs - streamed back to find that their houses had either been sold or given to Arabs from the south.
Over the past few years, many Arabs have been forced to leave the city, despite the pleas of Sunni and Shia Arab leaders that they stay.
Controversial new legislation
On 22 July, Iraq's parliament approved legislation to hold local elections in all 18 provinces, including Tamim of which Kirkuk is a part.
According to the new legislation, seats on the ruling council in the Kirkuk area should be divided equally among Kurds, Turkomans and Arabs. Security responsibilities in Kirkuk would be transferred mainly to Arab military units brought in from central and southern Iraq, instead of the predominantly Kurdish `peshmerga’.
But Kurds and their allies, who currently make up a majority on Kirkuk council, oppose the power-sharing formula. Iraq's three-member presidential council also rejected the measure and sent it back to parliament after President Jalal Talabani - a Kurd - opposed it.
Since then, thousands of people have been involved in daily demonstrations in favour of, or against, the new legislation. The first of these demonstrations was on 28 July when a suicide bomber targeted the mainly Kurdish demonstrators, killing 25 of them and wounding 187.
The Kurds have accused the Turkomans of being behind that attack and started attacking then, injuring three, according to a police officer in Kirkuk who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to release such information.
“Kurds must deal with Kirkuk as an Iraqi city not as a Kurdish one because we will never abandon the houses in which we have lived for decades,” said Sheikh Abdul-Jabbar al-Jibouri, a 52-year-old Arab from Hawija town in southern Kirkuk.
“Our houses and land are our honour and we will never turn our backs on them. If the Kurds abandon their demand to annex Kirkuk and recognise other ethnic groups then they are welcome among us; if not, then taking an inch [of the territory] will be over our dead bodies, “al-Jibouri said.
This is a warning that does not impress Azad Yahya Mohammed, a 44-year old Kurd, who insists on the “Kurdish identity of Kirkuk”.
“It [Kirkuk] has always been Kurdish and it must stay as it is,” said Mohammed. ”Arabs and Turkomans must acknowledge this fact, then they will be welcome among us, as are others who live in Kurdistan.”