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Playing Tug-of-War Over Kirkuk


The future of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq remains in dispute amid speculation that a June referendum on the city's final status could be postponed. The vote has already been delayed twice and many analysts say it could be shelved again, perhaps indefinitely.

The Kirkuk referendum was scheduled to take place first in November, then December of last year. It was then delayed until this June due to administrative problems and security concerns. Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution mandates a referendum to determine whether Kirkuk, which has a Kurdish majority, should be part of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.

The United Nations is trying to help Iraq break the Kirkuk logjam. But most analysts say crucial requirements for the vote have not been fulfilled. These include redrawing the city's boundaries and repatriating Kurds expelled from Kirkuk and Arabs brought into the city under Saddam Hussein's Arabization policies. Once these steps are complete, a census and a referendum would follow.

Slow Movement

While repatriation has already begun, Najmaldin Karim, President of the Washington Kurdish Institute, says Baghdad has not implemented the other requirements. "The fact that they really haven't done the work that is needed for the referendum may force a delay. But I think they haven't gotten to all of this because there is no will on the part of the [Nouri al-] Maliki government. The Maliki government is a weak government [that] has not been able to deal with the issues that they are pressing -- like security, of course," says Karim. "But this is a big issue. If Article 140 is not implemented to the satisfaction of everybody, that could lead to more security problems and unrest and it could break up the whole country into violence."

Many analysts say it is not a question of a weak Iraqi government, but that Kirkuk is not high on Baghdad's list of priorities. Some, like Henri Barkey, Chairman of Lehigh University's International Relations Department, see the Iraqi government as unwilling to go ahead with the referendum.

"There is discord in Baghdad. There are many who do not want to see this referendum go forward. In the city of Kirkuk, you have lots of people who are very opposed to the referendum. And people do not trust each other. And part of what you need for the Kirkuk referendum to go forward is for trust to be built between the communities," says Barkey. "At the moment, everybody looks at the Kirkuk referendum as an attempt by the Kurds to grab land and resources. True or not true, that is how it is being perceived."

Barkey argues that the Kurds may have little choice but to agree to a delay, if the groundwork for the referendum is not finished. And the University of Pittsburgh's Haider Ala Hamoudi, who advises Baghdad on commercial and financial issues, says no one is going to concede that there is no way that the arrangements can be completed by June.

"I don't think anybody in the Iraqi government is openly admitting at this point that the June date is not really attainable and that they are unlikely to meet it. Another delay is inevitably what I think the central government is going to be asking for. And it does seem to me that they [i.e., officials in Baghdad] are eager to sort of kick the can down the road as long as they can kick the can down the road," says Hamoudi. "That is that they don't really want to have to resolve this issue. They know that it's a fragile one and it's fraught with tension and they would rather avoid it by delaying delaying it sort of indefinitely, rather than forcing a referendum."

Patience Wearing Thin?

No official announcement has been made to suggest that the Kirkuk vote might not be held as scheduled. But Hamoudi says Northern Iraqi Kurds are running out of patience and could try to force a unilateral vote to annex the city. "I would describe the idea of a unilateral vote as sort of a nuclear option. It would be so incendiary, so fraught with controversy and itself so controversial that both the American government and the Iraqi government, one would think, would strongly oppose it. But at the same time, I wouldn't be surprised if the Kurds, as a negotiation tactic, continued to raise the possibility of a unilateral vote," says Hamoudi. "And that may well force the Iraqi government's hand and it may well force a referendum at some point later in the year. I don't think June is very likely."

Although some Kurdish activists outside of Iraq grudgingly concede that a postponement appears likely, Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace here in Washington suspects that Kurdish officials might be willing to postpone the vote yet again.

"I think the United States and the Maliki government believe that this [i.e., holding the referendum] would lead to a confrontation that Iraq can hardly afford at this time. That would leave the Kurds very dissatisfied, but I would be surprised if the Kurds decided to really push for that confrontation right now. And the sides remain as far [apart] as always," says Ottaway. "The Kurds still believe that Kirkuk is part of their territory. The central government does not want to give up Kirkuk. And Turkey certainly is pushing for the rights of [the] Turkoman in that city."

The University of Pennsylvania's Brendan O'Leary, a former constitutional advisor to the Iraqi Kurds, says Turkey would draw international condemnation if it intervened militarily in Kirkuk and would have to find other ways to deal with the situation. "If Turkey were to seek assurances that the [Iraqi] Kurdistan government would protect all minorities that might become part of the [Iraqi] Kurdistan region, including the Turkoman, I am sure they will find the willingness to discuss the details," says O'Leary. "What I don't think will be accepted is any effort to propose that the referendum not happen or any effort to propose that instead of Kirkuk being allowed to become part of the Kurdistan region, it should be a region of its own."

Some analysts say giving Kirkuk a power-sharing, autonomous status is one solution. Many experts maintain that Kurdish nationalists would never agree. But some say a compromise might be possible.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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