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In the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, as in many places, the makeup of population matters. This is a place where Saddam Hussein wiped up the Kurdish population and replaced many of them with Arabs. But since Saddam's overthrow, Kurds have returned in huge numbers, making Kirkuk a prime example of why a national census keeps getting put off. There are political implications to a national census. The census will determine who controls coveted, oil-rich territories.

NPR's Peter Kenyon visited Kirkuk and has this report.

PETER KENYON: In a reed-covered lean-to fronting a mud shack, an old man who gives his name as Abu Adel sells snacks and soft drinks in a poor, mostly Arab neighborhood of Kirkuk. He's embarrassed by his family's grimy dwelling, but his biggest fear is that the plain-clothed men who have been harassing him, who he suspects are with the Kurdish security forces, will return and force them to leave it.

Mr. ABU ADEL: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: About three weeks ago, he says, men came and peppered him with questions: Where were his papers? Where was he from? Why was he living here -and told him he had to leave.

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 money and returned to their native Nassariya in the south. But without the cash, he can't afford to follow.

At the headquarters of Kirkuk's Asaish security forces, spokesman Farhat Mohammed Ali denies that his men are pressuring Kirkuk's Arabs to leave. But he says too many are taking the relocation money under false pretenses.

Mr. FARHAT MOHAMMED ALI (Spokesman, Asaish Security Forces): (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: According to the law, once they get the money, they have one month to leave. 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.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: 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 relocated to Kirkuk, 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 determine the relative sizes of the various communities, and finally a referendum would determine whether or not residents wanted to be part of the Kurdish-controlled northern territories.

(Soundbite of car)

KENYON: Mahmoud Mohammed Majid, a Kurdish member of the provincial council, says another two months of waiting is one thing, but he worries that those behind the delay are actually seeking to prevent the census altogether.

Mr. MAHMOUD MOHAMMED MAJID (Kurdish Member, Provincial Council): (Through translator) You know, 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.

KENYON: But Kirkuk's Arabs and Turkmen say past injustices against the Kurds are only part of the story. Najat Hussein Hassan, a Turkman council member, says since the fall of the old regime, the Kurds have been extremely busy repopulating Kirkuk - with staggering success.

Mr. NAJAT HUSSEIN HASSAN (Turkman Council Member): (Through translator) It's true that Saddam displaced thousands of Kurds. But after the fall of the regime, the number of Kurds who were brought in here was something like 500,000. This number is huge. It's illogical.

KENYON: Kurds dispute that number. 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 both here and in other provinces.

Ms. NERMEEN AL-MUFTI (Spokeswoman, Iraqi Turkmen Front): The first thing is Turkmen and Arabs, not only in Kirkuk - in Kirkuk, Diyala, Salahudeen, Mosul and Anbar - they are going to boycott it.

KENYON: Mahmoud Majid, the Kurdish councilmember, 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 population, most of which he believes would be happy just to get along. But that, it seems, is not Kirkuk's fate.

Mr. MAJID: (Through translator) 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. It's the same with the oil. For some it's a blessing, but here in Kirkuk, it's a curse.

KENYON: 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 divisions have prevented a national headcount since 1932.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News.

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