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Kirkuk Referendum Stirs Up Controversy in Northern Iraq

A recent Iraqi decision to implement a constitutionally-mandated plan on the status of Kirkuk has alarmed many among its ethnic minorities who fear the measure might be a step toward including Kirkuk as part of an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.

The plan, approved by the Iraqi national government in late March, is designed to reverse Saddam Hussein's Arabization policies ahead of a November vote to determine whether Kirkuk will join Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.

Analyst Soner Cagaptay of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy lauds the plan for correcting Saddam Hussein's injustices, but cautions that it could increase ethnic tensions.

"A crime of Saddam Hussein is being reversed, which is great. People who have been kicked out of the city are allowed to come back. But the second part of this is that people who are not among the original inhabitants are allowed to come back and they are changing the demographic balance. And the Iraqi government is encouraging Arabs settled in Kirkuk by Saddam Hussein to go back to where they came from. But some of these people were settled in Kirkuk in the 1970s. In other words, for them Kirkuk is home. A lot of them were born in Kirkuk and there is really no place else for them to go. So this idea of encouraging people to return is suddenly going to create a lot of conflict."

Arab, Christian and Turkmen residents charge that the plan alters Kirkuk's diverse ethnic character by turning it into a largely Kurdish city and could skew the referendum. They argue that the vote should be postponed. Kurdish leaders insist it should go ahead as planned.

While some analysts say Kirkuk's demographics have not changed much since 2003, others say more than 100-thousand Kurds have since moved in, making the Kurds the majority in a city of more than one-million people.

Ethnic violence has increased in Kirkuk in recent weeks, and many analysts, including University of Michigan historian Juan Cole, fear more bloodshed in the coming months.

"There are Turkmen and Arab populations in Kirkuk who are not going to like living under Kurdish rule, who view the Peshmerga, the Kurdish para-military, as enemies. And I think there is going to be a lot of trouble about Kirkuk coming under Kurdish rule. And I think that if the referendum is held, it certainly will [come under Kurdish control.]"

Some analysts warn that the city's Arabs and Turkmen will likely boycott the referendum, leaving it to the Kurds to decide the ballot. And Soner Cagaptay of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy says these groups are forming new alliances ahead of the referendum.

"More and more people are now turning to violent groups, with the Sunni Turkmen and Sunni Arabs giving support to al-Qaida, and with the Shi'ite Turkmen and Shi'ite Arabs giving support to the Mehdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr. That's why insisting on the referendum is not going to help the Kurdish cause, even though they [i.e., the Kurds] want to get the city.

But the referendum, some experts argue, provides an opportunity to defuse tensions in a city that has been a source of friction for decades. And Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. diplomat and Kurdish affairs expert, expects the vote to take place with less violence than most analysts fear.

"The fundamental problem in any situation like this is that you have a referendum, and there are going to be people who are unhappy. If Kirkuk remains part of Arab Iraq, then the Kurds will be unhappy. If it becomes part of Kurdistan, then the Arabs and some of the Turkmen will be unhappy, although others of the Turkmen are very pro-Kurdish. So there's no way to win. But the Iraqi government is simply implementing the constitution."

But the International Crisis Group's Joost [YOAST] Hiltermann doubts that the Iraqi government will be able to hold the referendum this year.

"What would have to happen first is a completion of other elements of the reversal or Arabization, including the return of displaced Kirkukis, be they Kurds or Turkmen or of any other nationality, and also the return of districts that were severed from the Kirkuk governorate during Arabization and that would reintroduce large Kurdish populations into the Kirkuk governorate.

And then, according to the constitution, a census should take place in Kirkuk and then a referendum in which the population is to decide on the region's status. But none of this will probably be completed this year. So what we're facing is a train wreck, where one side insists on carrying out a referendum that nobody else wants, and the others claim that the referendum has a predetermined outcome that they reject out of hand."

Many observers say power-sharing among Kirkuk's various ethnic groups is the best way to avoid renewed conflict. That is why international affairs specialist Henri Barkey of Pennsylvania's Lehigh University says it is likely that the referendum will be postponed.

"I am not saying this will not happen by the end of the year, but it's much better for the KRG - - the Kurdistan Regional Government - - and for the Kurds in general to say, 'Look, we're not ready. We will postpone this by six months or nine months.' And that will relieve some of the pressure that we are seeing now. But they are not going to say it now. They will wait until the summer is over and then we will see the situation on the ground."

If, however, the vote does not take place in November, some analysts warn the Kurds might withdraw from the national government, throwing Iraq into a political crisis that could endanger the gains it has made toward political stability.