Iraqi parliament opens probe into delays over status of northern oil-rich Kirkuk

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Sign the petition for Iraq's three-region solution November 18, 2007 Iraqi parliament opens probe into delays over status of northern oil-rich Kirkuk

The Associated Press 

BAGHDAD: Iraq's parliament on Saturday ordered an inquiry into the delay of a referendum over whether the oil-rich city of Kirkuk will join the semiautonomous Kurdish region in the north.

The Iraqi constitution requires that a referendum on the future status of the city be held by the end of this year to determine_ whether it will remain under Baghdad's control, become part of Kurdistan or gain autonomy from both.

The constitution also calls for a census to be held in Kirkuk by the end of 2007, to determine how many Arabs, Kurds and Turkomen reside in the city. Kurds dispute the results of censuses conducted under Saddam Hussein.

With just one and half months left in the year, Iraqi officials on Saturday confirmed that the census and referendum have been postponed until next year.

"November 15 was the original date set for the referendum on Kirkuk, but Iraqi authorities were not able to meet it," Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman said.

"Today, the Iraqi parliament summoned the Article 140 committee in order to question members about what they achieved, what they have not — and why," he said. Article 140 is the section of the Iraqi constitution that lays out rules governing Kirkuk's future status.

Othman said the parliament was awaiting an official request from committee members to discuss setting a new date for the referendum.

Kirkuk is an especially coveted city for both the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Kurdish one in Irbil.

Much of Iraq's vast oil wealth lies under the ground in the Kirkuk region, as well as in the Shiite-controlled south. Kurds refer to Kirkuk as the "Kurdish Jerusalem," and control of the area's oil resources and its cultural attachment to Kurdistan have been hotly contested.

The city's Arabs are generally in favor of continued rule by Iraq's central government in Baghdad, while many Kurds want Kirkuk to join the Kurdish zone to its north. The city's minority Turkomen — ethnic Turks — have said they prefer to stay under Baghdad's control, but would lobby for their own autonomous region if Kirkuk ends up being part of Kurdistan.

Kirkuk also has significant minorities of Christians, Armenians and Assyrians.

The last census was conducted in Kirkuk before Saddam's Baath Party took power in 1968. At the time, the city had a majority Kurdish population.

But tens of thousands of Kurds and non-Arabs fled Kirkuk in the 1980s and 1990s when Saddam's government implemented its "Arabization" policy. They were replaced by pro-government Arabs from the mainly Shiite south, after Saddam accused the Kurds of siding with Iran in the 1980-1988 war with Tehran.

Now, the Iraqi government has begun resettling some of those Arabs to their home regions, making room for thousands of Kurds who have gradually returned to Kirkuk since Saddam's ouster.

The plan is said to be voluntary, and Arabs who agree are paid US$15,500 and given a piece of property in their regions of origin.

Some Arab lawmakers in Baghdad initially opposed the resettlement program, out of fear that Kirkuk would revert to Kurdish control. Iraq's parliament scheduled a debate over the plan this past September, but it was delayed indefinitely.

About 1,000 Arab families have received compensation so far, according to Kaka Ritsh, a Kurdish official who works on resettlement issues in Kirkuk. Another 3,500 families have had signed up for the program and are willing to go back to their home regions, he said Saturday.

Other Iraqi officials expressed frustration Saturday at the delays over Kirkuk.

"Four years have passed, and the referendum should have been done by now, but successive governments have done nothing," Othman said. "Yet we do understand that there were obstacles, such as security challenges and bureaucracy."

Qadir Aziz, a spokesman for Kurdish president Massoud Barzani, said the delay "is not to the Kurds' benefit."

The head of the Kirkuk city council on Saturday accused the central government of intentionally stalling the process, saying Baghdad's Arab-dominated government stood to gain from the delay.

"The Iraqi government and parliament should have thought about these problems related to Article 140 before approving it," said city council chief Rizqar Ali. "It's too late now for them to say it's difficult to perform the referendum by its fixed date."

Another diplomatic force influencing Kirkuk's destiny could be Turkey, which is currently mired in a standoff with Kurdish rebels along Iraq's northern border. Tension is growing in Turkey over separatist Kurdish guerrillas, and the Turkish military is preparing for a possible cross-border offensive against rebel bases in northern Iraq.

Turkey has warned Iraq against allowing Kirkuk to leave the central government's control, fearing its own Kurdish population might seek autonomy. Turkey is also worried about the fate of Kirkuk's Turkomen, or ethnic Turks.

____

Associated Press Writer Yahya Barazanji contributed to this story from Sulaimaniyah, Iraq.

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