Iraq election vote has extra spin in city of Kirkuk

Long-simmering tensions between Iraq's Arabs and Kurds look likely to increase in the aftermath of last week's national elections.

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KIRKUK // Long-simmering tensions between Iraq's Arabs and Kurds look set to increase in the aftermath of last week's national elections, with Kurdish groups already calling the vote a mini-referendum that proves their right to take full control over Kirkuk.

As ballot counting continues in Baghdad, the Kurdistani list, a powerful alliance uniting the KDP and PUK parties, is claiming to have won at least six of the 12 parliamentary seats allocated to Kirkuk province. Other Kurd coalitions and allied minority parties are also on course to take seats, making the Kurdish political establishment confident it will hold a majority in Kirkuk. Even the Kurds' opponents are admitting the inevitability of a Kurdish electoral victory here, although they insist it will be by a narrow margin.

Ever since the Iraqi constitution was passed in 2005, the Kurds have been insistent that a referendum be held over the status of Kirkuk, in which residents would be allowed to choose whether the city be administered from Baghdad or from Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region. That referendum, enshrined in Article 140 of the constitution, has never been held, to the anger and frustration of the Kurdish parties, who are certain it would find in their favour.

In the absence of a full referendum, the Kurdistani list now says the March 7 elections have served as a successful mini-referendum, one confirming their dominance over Kirkuk in a vote that has been given an international seal of approval. The United Nations has repeatedly insisted that the election was fair, despite persistent allegations of fraud. "The election makes it clear that Kirkuk is Kurdish; no one can dispute that now, the facts are there," said Mala Sirwan of the PUK, who contested the ballot in Kirkuk and who expects to take a seat in the next parliament in Baghdad when final tallies are compiled at the end of the month.

"The message from the voters is clear; this has been a referendum on Kirkuk and the democratic outcome is that it belongs to the Kurds. We have proved what we always said: Kirkuk is Kurds, it belongs to the Kurds, not to the Arabs." Under the laws governing the March 7 election, the results from Kirkuk are specifically not supposed to influence final status negotiations over the city. When the law was finally passed in November, the US ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill, said Washington's position was also that it should "not be used to solve the Kirkuk question".

Kurdish officials, however, see the results as providing hard democratic legitimacy to their claims for the city, moving them one step closer to realising their dream of annexing it to the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). "Certainly this proves Kirkuk is a majority Kurd city," said Najat Manmi, head of the KDP's Kirkuk branch. "We have also shown we can have a peaceful and fair election which means there is no reason to delay any longer the implementation of Article 140 and the referendum.

"If they [the federal government] don't have a referendum, it is going to create damage for everyone in Iraq." Assertions that the March 7 election was free from widespread fraud have been questioned by various Iraqi political parties, including the Iraqiyya alliance, a secular coalition led by Ayad Allawi, a former prime minister. On Thursday it produced what it said was evidence of voting irregularities, including photos of ballot papers they said had been left in the grounds of a Kirkuk school.

Iraqiyya, together with other nationalist political groups, has insisted that as an Iraqi city, Kirkuk should not be controlled by the KRG but by Baghdad. "The Kurdish won a majority in Kirkuk; we can't deny that and we do accept it," said Mohammad Tneem, who stood for election in Kirkuk as part of Iraqiyya. "But they did not win a large majority and we were close behind them. "It is absolutely wrong for them to say this was a referendum over Kirkuk. It was a national election with many other issues at stake. And it certainly does not give them the right to claim the city."

Mr Tneem repeated assertions made by the Kurds' opponents that, since 2003, Erbil has shipped in tens of thousands of non-residents to Kirkuk, in an act of demographic warfare designed to establish a clear Kurdish majority. The Kurds dispute the allegation, saying only a small proportion of families displaced by Saddam Hussein's Arabisation programme - which moved Arabs into the city and forced many Kurds to leave - have returned.

Concerns over dubious electoral rolls were recognised in the election law and, as such, the results for Kirkuk can be subjected to a special review during the next 12 months, if demanded by political parties. It is the argument over demographics that has made the Article 140-stipulated referendum such a dangerous political conundrum for Iraq. After the 2003 US-led invasion, Kurdish forces wasted little time in pushing south of the old green line that had marked their frontier with Arab-controlled zones. Kurdish peshmerga [militia] forces moved into Kirkuk, and also took over large parts of Ninewah and Diyala province, areas the Kurds say are historically theirs and that should therefore be part of the autonomous KRG region.

Kirkuk, sitting on billions of dollars' worth of oil reserves, remains the focal point of these disputed territories. Arab-Kurd tensions rose to such a level that US military officials feared the outbreak of a civil war and, to prevent that happening, Barack Obama last year deployed an extra division of troops to Kirkuk. That helped prevent a shooting war, but did nothing to tackle the underlying issues of competing Kurdish and Arab-Iraqi nationalisms. Erbil claims territory for the Kurds that Baghdad insists belongs to the whole of Iraq.

UN mediators remain involved in the disputed territories issue, and proposals have been made for Kirkuk to be granted a special status, administered neither by Baghdad or Erbil. The potential for violence remains. In Baghdad's Sadr City, a former commander of the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia that once fought US and Iraqi government forces, said it had thousands of fighters ready to oppose any Kurdish attempts to claim the city.

"We will never accept Kirkuk as a Kurdish city and we will liberate Kirkuk, by force, if that becomes necessary," Abu Zahrar said. "The Kurdish peshmerga are cowards and they always run from Kirkuk if an Arab army faces them. "I do not think it will reach that point. The Americans, Syrians, Iranians and Turks will stop the Kurds from having Kirkuk. They are crazy if they think they will get it." Nizar Latif reported from Baghdad