Iraq's knotty Kirkuk problem: Crucial, urgent, but no quick answer

KIRKUK, Iraq — The men line up by the hundreds every day at the blast wall on al Quds Street: Kurds who were forced out of the province of Kirkuk under Saddam Hussein's regime, Arabs who were brought in to replace them and others. They're all waiting for their checks.

If a man is lucky, he'll get a check for $8,534 if he and his family are moving back into Kirkuk, double that if they're moving out.

Gingerly, ambivalently and amid Kafkaesque tangles of red tape, the government of Iraq is attempting to reverse Saddam's decades-long campaign of ethnic cleansing, Arabization and border gerrymandering in this oil-rich northern.

Given time, it could work. But Iraqi politics has moved Kirkuk to center stage, and the demands of a host of interested actors — from Kurdish political parties to Sunni Muslim militants in Anbar province and the governments of Turkey and the United States — are colliding.

At stake are questions of parliamentary power, oil and revenue-sharing, the limits of Iraq's federalism and its relations with neighboring countries, especially Turkey, which has a sizable Kurdish minority and fears the creation of an independent Kurdish state in Iraq's north fueled by oil from Kirkuk.

Already, the collision has forced the indefinite postponement of provincial elections that the Bush administration and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki see as crucial to channeling the country's overlapping and sometimes violent sectarian and tribal tensions into a democratic process.

Parliament gridlocked on the prerequisite election law in August. It probably will resume debate when it returns from summer recess next week, but it isn't clear that the situation is any more conducive to agreement now.

Arab groups in opposition to the government, such as the Sadrists and the Sons of Iraq, are eager for a law to pass so they can consolidate their popular support in Iraq's other provinces, but among the Arabs and Turkomen of Kirkuk, fear is widespread that the Kurd-led administration won't allow fair elections here.

The last attempt at a provisional solution — a bill forced through parliament by Arab opposition parties only to be vetoed by the Kurdish-led presidency council — would have treated Kirkuk as a special case. It would have postponed elections in the province and replaced its majority-Kurd council with one that gave equal representation to the three main ethnic groups: 32 percent apiece, a strategic hair short of the 33 percent approval that it would need to force a referendum on the province's final status, with 4 percent reserved for minorities.

Some Kurdish politicians say they're willing to postpone elections here, but they reject any solution based on the power-sharing model. "If they've already distributed the percentages, what's the point of holding elections in the first place?" asked Safeen Dizayee of the Kurdish Democratic Party. "Everybody wants to use Kirkuk as a scapegoat for any kind of problem."

Kurds have long claimed Kirkuk as their own, and Saddam wasn't the first or last man to realize that the province could provide the economic base for a Kurdish state if it joined the three Kurdish provinces in northern Iraq.

Kurdish politicians say that isn't their intent, at least for now. But at some point, after Kirkuk's borders and demographics are returned to something similar to their pre-Saddam state — and the officials in charge warn that it will take at least several more years — Kirkuk will have its first legitimate census since 1957, followed by a referendum. It then may join the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan, remain under federal control or even form a region of its own.

Tensions on this broader issue are likely to remain, even if some short-term solution can be found to allow elections to proceed.

Officials in charge of the "normalization" that's under way in Kirkuk — which was difficult to start with, because of widespread fraud and the sheer volume of cases they must review — say that it's being slowed by inadequate staffing and funding from the central government, as well as Kurdish interference.

"Frankly speaking, the main two Kurdish parties are pushing too hard to dominate the situation," said Ahmed al Barrack, the head of the Commission for the Resolution of Real Property Disputes. "For example, they closed two of our offices because they said we were not cooperating with them."

U.S. official in Baghdad said last month that Kurdish security forces were monitoring interviews conducted by teams that are working on border readjustment. Brig. Gen. Halkent Abdulla Aziz, the head of Kirkuk's Kurdish security force, denied that.

Kurds, for their part, deny any systematic interference and accuse their accusers. Nouri Talabany, an independent Kurd in the Kurdistan Region Parliament, warned in particular of former members of Saddam's Baath Party and Sunnis in Kirkuk who are nostalgic for their days in power:

"Fifty years ago, these people were 5,000; it was a small village. Now these people want to decide the destiny of all Kirkuk. It's the same thing for Arab Sunnis in Iraq, ruling this country for 70 years. It's difficult for them to accept that they are the minority, not the majority."

(Spangler reports for The Miami Herald.)

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