Poll Results In Kirkuk May Spur Census

The oil-rich and ethnically divided city of Kirkuk is perhaps the biggest prize in the post-election negotiations in Iraq and it has already delivered a surprise. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seems to have lost the Arab vote to his most prominent challenger, Iyad Allawi. The elections are being seen by some as a referendum on the city's future.

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As Iraq's political factions try to form a unity government, complicating matters is the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Ethnic Kurds there would like to make the city part of their autonomous region in the north of Iraq. But an Arab-Iraqi nationalist party did surprisingly well among voters there, and that has cast some doubt on Kurdish claims of a majority in the city.

NPR's Quil Lawrence traveled to Kirkuk and sent this report.

QUIL LAWRENCE: The city of Kirkuk contains nearly all of Iraq's diverse groups: Arabs, Turkomans and Kurds, Shiites, Sunnis and Christians. With about a fifth of Iraq's oil wealth, the city could be a cornerstone of the new Iraq. But since Iraq was created in the 1920s, Kirkuk has more often been where the country's structure crumbles.

Ms. TANYA GILLY (Kirkuk Member, Iraqi National Assembly): We are sitting on a time bomb. Putting it off any longer, it's just going to make matters worse.

LAWRENCE: Tanya Gilly is a Kurdish member of the outgoing parliament from Kirkuk. The time bomb she's referring to is the dispute over the city, which has been unresolved throughout Iraq's history. The Kurds say Saddam Hussein's ethnic cleansing changed the majority in the Province of Kirkuk from Kurd to Arab. Since 2003, however, Kurds have returned. Or if you ask the Arabs and Turkomans in the city, more Kurds than ever lived here have flooded in.

Arshad Rashad(ph) is a Turkoman who ran with the nationalist Iraqiya slate in Kirkuk.

Mr. ARSHAD RASHAD (Former Parliamentary Candidate): (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: After 2003, half a million Kurds came back to Kirkuk and now they outnumber us, Rashad says, repeating a common allegation. But even as he makes the claim, Rashad is smiling. Despite the supposed half million Kurdish arrivals, the Arabs and Turkomans with Iraqiya won half the seats in Kirkuk. Kurds won the other half. Rashad himself was the second-highest vote getter in the province.

Either the Kurdish influx never numbered as high as Rashad claims or Kurdish turnout was very low.

(Soundbite of a rooster)

LAWRENCE: It's easy to find the Kurdish returnees to the city who live mostly in several slums, like this parking lot where 12 families have constructed shanties and a chicken coop.

Najiha Fuwad(ph) spent her entire life as a refugee, first driven from Kirkuk by ethnic cleansing in the early 1990s, and then driven from Arab Iraq when the U.S. invasion began and Kurds were labeled as American collaborators.

Ms. NAJIHA FUWAD: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: As Kurds, we have to vote to make sure no one like Saddam Hussein comes back to power in Iraq, says Fuwad.

But many in this slum say theyve gotten little or no support from the political parties which encouraged them to move back. And that may be part of the problem. Kurdish politicians admit that they have lost popularity in Kirkuk because of infighting. This election, about 90,000 Kurds here voted for smaller, splinter Kurdish parties that didnt win. That cost the Kurds their majority in Kirkuk. Now they're just trying to make sure it doesnt cost them their bid for control of the province.

Minister FALLAH MUSTAFA BAKIR (Department of Foreign Relations, Kurdistan Regional Government): This was not a referendum on the status of Kirkuk.

LAWRENCE: Fallah Mustafa Bakir(ph) is a minister with the Kurdistan Regional Government, which wants to hold a referendum on annexing Kirkuk - a vote which the Iraqi constitution provides for. Whats most disturbing to the Kurds is that this parliamentary election could be seen as a de facto census and show they are not majority. Bakir claims that many Kurds who stayed away from the polls would be counted in a referendum.

Minister BAKIR: The fact remains that we are the majority there. We will work hard in order to make sure that census is carried out, conducted this year.

LAWRENCE: Arabs and Turkomans in Kirkuk have resisted holding a census, but this vote may give them the confidence to do so. But the census and the referendum on Kirkuk, as well as other disputes over territories between Kurds and Arabs in the north, are perhaps the most pressing unresolved issue in Iraq. U.S. military commanders have even suggested they could leave troops along the Arab-Kurdish fault line.

The election results have not brought the dispute any closer to resolution. Mazen Abdul-Jabbar(ph) heads the Iraqiya slate in Kirkuk.

Mr. MAZEN ABDUL-JABBAR (Director, Iraqiya National List): (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Let the territories be disputed, he says, and we'll find other things we can agree on.

But Abdul-Jabbar knows very well the Kurdish reply, which is that there can be no agreements before the disputed territories and Kirkuk are resolved. And that may be the same regardless of the Kurd's lower than expected showing in Kirkuk. The Kurdish bloc still commands as many as 57 seats in the incoming parliament, and both of the leading candidates are courting them. A rock solid deal on Kirkuk will be the price they're asking to join the government.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

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