In Iraq, Counting Heads Is A Political Headache

Kirkuk's ancient citadel is seen from a distance.

Kirkuk's ancient citadel is seen from a distance. The city is a polyglot mix of Kurds, Arabs, Christians and Turkmen, and also has the largest oil fields in northern Iraq. Kurds complain that Christians and Turkomen are behind the recent delay in a national census. Critics say that's because huge numbers of Kurds have been imported in recent years, far more than were expelled by Saddam Hussein decades ago. Peter Kenyon/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Peter Kenyon/NPR

Iraq hasn't had a full census since 1987, and shortly before it was due to launch one this fall, the government postponed it until December.

Besides providing baseline data for all kinds of urgently needed programs, the census is one part of a plan to ease Kurdish-Arab tensions in the northern part of the country, where the mixed-population city of Kirkuk has become a flash point for the country's ethnic, religious and sectarian divisions.

In a poor, mostly Arab neighborhood of Kirkuk, a slender, elderly man who gives his name as Abu Adel sells potato chips and soft drinks in a reed-covered lean-to fronting a mud shack. He's embarrassed by his family's tiny, dirty home, but his biggest fear is that the plainclothed men who have been harassing him — he suspects they're Kurdish security men — will return and force them to leave.

"About three weeks ago, they came and questioned me," he says. "They said, 'Where are your papers? Where are you from? Why are you living here?' "

Abu Adel says he would leave if the government would give him the roughly $15,000 it promised to help him relocate. He says one of his sons got the payment and returned to their native Nassariya in the south. But without the cash, he can't afford to follow.

An Ancient, Polyglot City — With Oil

Abu Adel

Abu Adel, originally from Nassariya in southern Iraq, has lived in Kirkuk since the 1980s. He says plainclothed men have harassed him, demanding his papers and asking why he hasn't left Kirkuk. Arabs like Abu Adel, lured north in the 1980s with promises of housing and jobs, are now under intense pressure to move back as Kurds repopulate the area. Peter Kenyon/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Peter Kenyon/NPR

Kirkuk has thrived along the banks of the Khasa River for a long time. It's one of several places that claim to be the oldest continuously inhabited city on Earth. Assyrians, Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs all have historical ties to Kirkuk, but over the centuries the demographics have been dramatically — and sometimes brutally — transformed, both before and after large quantities of oil were discovered in 1927.

In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein's forces uprooted thousands of Kurdish families and leveled their villages. Arab families were moved up to Kirkuk from the south, often lured, like Abu Adel's family, by promises of jobs and inexpensive housing.

After Saddam was toppled in 2003, the fate of Kirkuk became a sensitive issue. A three-step mechanism was devised. First, the "Arabization" of Kirkuk would be reversed, then a census would measure the relative sizes of the various communities, and finally a referendum would determine whether Kirkuk residents want to be part of the Kurdish-controlled north.

Allegations Of Fraud

Mahmoud Mohammed Majid, a Kurdish member of the provincial council, says waiting until December for the census is one thing, but he worries that those behind the delay are actually seeking to block it altogether.

"You know," he says, "we have no problem with the Turkmen here. The problem is the Arabs — those who still follow this Saddam policy of Arabizing the Kurdish areas."

At the headquarters of the Asaish, the Kurdish security force in Kirkuk, spokesman Farhat Mohammed Ali denies that his men are harassing Arabs and pressuring them to leave. But he says too many of them are taking the relocation money under false pretenses.

"According to the law, once they get the money they have one month to leave," Ali says. "But many of them take the money and move to another neighborhood in Kirkuk, and bribe the local mayor to let them stay there illegally."

Fear Of Kurdish Domination

A young girl waits to buy snacks from an Arab man.

A young girl waits to buy snacks from an Arab man who is explaining to reporters how he's routinely harrassed for being an Arab in Kirkuk. Kurds have been returning to Kirkuk in large numbers since the fall of Saddam Hussein, who brutally expelled them from the oil-rich area. Peter Kenyon/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Peter Kenyon/NPR

But Kirkuk's Arabs and Turkmen say past injustices against the Kurds, real as they may have been, are only part of the story. Najat Hussein Hassan, a Turkman member of the provincial council, says since the fall of the old regime, the Kurds have been busy repopulating Kirkuk — with staggering success.

"It's true that Saddam displaced thousands of Kurds," he says. "But after the fall of the regime, the number of Kurds who were brought in here, it's something like 500,000. This number is huge; it's illogical."

Kurds dispute that figure. But Nermeen al-Mufti, a spokeswoman for the Iraqi Turkmen Front, says if the government tries to force the census on Kirkuk now, it will trigger resistance well beyond Kirkuk.

"The first thing is, Turkmen and Arabs, not only in Kirkuk — in Kirkuk, Diyala, Salahudeen, Mosul and Anbar — they are going to boycott it," she insists.

The Burden Of Diversity

Majid, the Kurdish council member, smiles wearily at the heightened tensions that have greeted this latest attempt to unravel the Kirkukian Knot. He says his city is proud of its diverse heritage, and he believes most people would be happy just to get along. But that, it seems, is not Kirkuk's fate, he says.

"This kind of cultural and ethnic diversity — in a place like America it's a blessing, a source of richness. But here it's a curse," he says. "It's the same with the oil. For some it's a blessing, but here in Kirkuk it's a curse."

For now, Iraq's first full census since 1987 is set for early December. But some Iraqis wonder if they will someday be seen as following in the footsteps of Lebanon, where political and religious divisions have prevented a national headcount since 1932.

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