Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kirkuk a Key Election Issue for Kurds

New National Assembly will be closely monitored by those who want the city returned to Kurdish rule.
By Samah Samad

Residents of this diverse and divided city are sceptical that the new parliament will solve what has become known as "the Kirkuk issue."

In the Sixties, the former regime began moving thousands of Arabs into Kirkuk as part of a campaign to "Arabise" parts of Kurdish northern Iraq. Thousands of Kurds, as well as Turkomans, were forced out.

Kirkuk, which today has Kurdish, Turkoman and Arab residents who belong to a multiplicity of religions, remains a central issue for Kurds. They want the city returned to Kurdish rule, displaced Kurds brought back, and the Arab settlers encouraged to move back to their home regions.

Since Saddam Hussein's regime was overthrown, Kirkuk residents and Kurds in other cities and regions have closely monitored the government's initiatives moves on the Kirkuk question, and it is now one of the key issues facing National Assembly members, who will hold seats for four years.

The constitution approved in October declares that Kirkuk's displaced families should be moved back by 2007. Many are disappointed, however, that according to the constitution, a referendum on whether it become part of the Kurdish territories will be delayed until after “normalisation”, a somewhat undefined term, is achieved there.

Voters are expected to favour the main Kurdish slate, the Kurdistan Alliance which promotes itself as the coalition that will solve Kirkuk's problems. It won the majority of seats on the Kirkuk provincial council and a significant number of seats in the Iraqi National Assembly in the January election.

But Kurdish parties have come under fire for not pushing hard enough to normalise Kirkuk. On a local level, they were also accused of throwing their weight around on the provincial council.

In Kirkuk, the Kurdistan Alliance will be competing with slates representing minority Turkomans and the Sunni Arab coalitions that had boycotted the January polls.

Rizgar Ali, Kirkuk provincial council president and a leading member on the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, said the Kurdistan Alliance pushed for Arabs in Kirkuk to vote separately and for their ballots to be counted towards candidates from the areas they originally came from. The Independent Electoral Commission in Iraq, IECI, did not agree to this.

Arab votes "will affect the election results in Kirkuk to a large extent", he said.

The Arab-Kurdish issue was inflamed when local officials discovered nearly 200,000 voters' names - most of them Kurds -- were missing on official voter registration lists. Kirkuk has 691,410 registered voters.

Most of the 196,000 missing voters were displaced Kurds who had returned to Kirkuk and voters who had not participated in previous elections, said Farhad Talabani, head of the IECI in Kirkuk.

Talabani said the electoral commission in Baghdad resent the entire list, including the missing names. But Talabani said he was concerned that the IECI would not be able to print all of the voter lists in time. Some in Kirkuk are worried that the lists will not be ready and have called for the election to be delayed.

The incident soured already complex relations between Kurdish political groups and others who are suspicious of their agenda.

"One mistake shouldn't be fixed with another mistake," said Samira a-Hamdani, a 41-year-old Arab resident, referring to the initiative to move Arabs out of the city.

Parties serving in the next parliament should not encourage annexing Kirkuk to Kurdistan, said Muhammed al-Bayati, 45, a Shia Turkoman who sits on Kirkuk's provincial council.

"They should educate people about how they can coexist with other ethnicities," he said. "They shouldn't arouse sectarianism."

Some Kurds have little confidence that any Iraqi government will actually solve the issue.

"Foreign support - and particularly the United Nations – could help solve the Kirkuk problem," said Karwan Zangana, a 32-year-old Kurdish resident. "For the Iraqi government, the Kirkuk issue is just about ink on paper."

Samah Samad is an IWPR trainee journalist in Kirkuk.