Iraqi politicians are dueling with new hostility over the fate of Kirkuk, the oil-rich city that both self-ruled Kurds in the north and Iraq's central government want to control.
The dispute has caused a deadlock over an election law, threatening to delay Iraq's nationwide elections set for mid-January. Any vote setback could, in turn, disrupt American plans to withdraw troops from Iraq, scheduled to ramp up after the vote.
"The problem is that we are getting to a crisis," said Marina Ottoway, director of the Middle East Program at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "They have been trying for over a year to reach a compromise on Kirkuk."
"Now," she warns, "it is becoming a problem for the United States. ... There is real pressure on the U.S. military to draw down as soon as possible."
For generations, tensions have simmered over Kirkuk and its surrounding province of about 1.3 million people, 180 miles north of Baghdad. Boasting a citadel believed to date to 800 B.C. or earlier, Kirkuk is in many ways an ordinary, if somewhat shabby, Iraqi city.
But it sits on a political and cultural fault line among ethnic Kurds and smaller groups of ethnic Arabs and Turkomen, or ethnic Turks. Vast oil fields, dotted with flaming smoke stacks, lie just to the north and west — raising the stakes.
Vying for control
Kurds consider Kirkuk a Kurdish city and want it part of their self-ruled region. But during the rule of former dictator Saddam Hussein, tens of thousands of Kurds were displaced under a forced plan by Saddam to make Kirkuk predominantly Arab.
Regaining control of the city is thus extremely symbolic for Kurds and many Kurds have returned since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. But other groups claim Kurds have packed more Kurds into the city than before.
The population breakdown remains in dispute but U.S. officials estimated last spring that Kurds make up 52 percent of Kirkuk and its province, with Arabs at 35 percent and Turkomen about 12 percent.
The Arab-led central government vehemently opposes anything that would remove Kirkuk from its control. A referendum on the city's future — required by the Iraqi constitution — has been repeatedly postponed. The Turkomen have generally sided with Arabs, believing they'll be treated better than under the Kurds, a longtime enemy of their Turkish supporters.
The immediate dispute centers on voting rolls listing who can vote in Kirkuk in the January national election. That has delayed the necessary deal on the election law.
Long-term, money also plays a role. Because of the surrounding oil, whoever controls Kirkuk stands to benefit enormously.
The Kurdish-Arab dispute over Kirkuk is different from Iraq's main political dispute between Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs, which plays out more in the capital of Baghdad and surrounding areas.
The Sunni-Shiite split has less relevance in Kirkuk where both Kurds and Arabs are mostly Sunni Muslims. There, the fear among Arabs — both Sunnis and Shiites — is that Kurds will gobble up all jobs and government benefits if Kirkuk joins Kurdistan.
Election influences U.S. military withdrawal
The United States has been watching the debate intensely for any repercussions it may have for the American military withdrawal.
Under a plan by President Barack Obama, all U.S. combat troops will be out of the country by the end of August 2010, leaving about 50,000 trainers and support troops in Iraq. Those remaining troops would leave by the end of 2011.
U.S. military commanders say the majority of the troop departures would come about 60 days after the planned Iraqi election — the idea being to get the country on stable footing before making any major troop changes.
Any delay in the election date could possibly push back the troop withdrawal. U.S. officials have said that they are still hoping the Jan. 16 date will go forward, but say their troop drawdown plan is not fixed.
Iraq's central government should have tried to resolve the underlying Kirkuk issue long before now, asserts Mohammed Ihsan, the former Minister of Disputed Territories, who is now in the Kurdistan regional government.
"They forget that without sorting out this issue, you cannot develop a serious partnership throughout the country," Ihsan said.
But a Turkomen lawmaker, Abbas al-Bayati, said that Iraq's parliament has not given up hopes of a deal on the election law. "Delaying the elections is a red line. Elections must not be postponed at any price."
‘Special status’ for city?
The tensions over Kirkuk — already high — rose last week after Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish autonomous region in the north, said in a speech: "We refuse to give Kirkuk a special status in the election."
The wording refers to an April U.N. report recommending giving Kirkuk such "special status" with oversight by both the near-autonomous Kurdish region and the central government in Baghdad. Kurds reject that.
The controversy over Barzani's words was further complicated, at least initially, by a mistranslation of his remarks on Iraqi state television, which inaccurately quoted him as saying he pledged to "annex" Kirkuk — a more hard line position.
A regional official with state-owned Iraqiya TV, Evan Nasir Hassan, said Saturday the station made the translation error inadvertently when translating from Kurdish to Arabic. The Associated Press used Iraqiya's Arabic translation in its original story on the speech Wednesday, but subsequently ran a correction describing Barzani's comments accurately.
The mistranslation aside, emotions run high.
Fawzi Akram, a legislator in radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's bloc, who listened to Barzani's speech in the original Kurdish, called his comments provocative.
"We must contain the situation, not make it more complicated," he said. "Kirkuk is an Iraqi city."
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