Iraq Election May Leave Status of Kirkuk Uncertain
March 12, 2010 · Posted in NEWS

Published: March 12, 2010

KIRKUK, Iraq — Early election results appear to reflect a hardening of divisions between Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens in northern Iraq, potentially complicating efforts by the United States and the United Nations to forge a compromise over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk — a prize claimed by both Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdistan region and the central government.

According to unofficial results released earlier this week, the Kurdistan Alliance, a coalition of the two ruling Kurdish parties, received more than 50 percent of the votes cast in Tamim, the province that includes Kirkuk. Iraq’s electoral commission was scheduled to release partial results over the weekend that were not expected to differ significantly from that outcome.

“This means the majority believe Kirkuk belongs to Kurdistan,” said Khalid Shwani, a Parliament member and a Kurd, who is expected to handily secure a second term.

Yet, the votes of Sunni Arabs and Turkmens — estimated at about 30 percent of the total — went primarily to the Iraqiya slate led nationally by Ayad Allawi, a former interim prime minister, and particularly for candidates with an uncompromising stand on preventing Kirkuk from joining the Kurdistan region.

Mr. Allawi has called for a “special situation” for Kirkuk that would keep it under Baghdad’s control, but give extra powers to a local government equally divided among all groups.

But that approach is flatly rejected by the Kurds, who now say their new alliance — which will play a pivotal role in forming a future Iraqi government —has a mandate to expedite Kirkuk’s entry into the Kurdistan region in accordance with the Constitution’s Article 140. Mr. Shwani said that this would be a central demand by Kurds to join any prospective government.

One of his coalition’s priorities would be compensation and restitution of property rights for the tens of thousands of Kurds who were banished under the “Arabization” campaign of the former Baathist government, and who returned to Kirkuk after 2003, Mr. Shwani said.

He said that about 100,000 Kurds — Arabs and Turkmens said many more — had returned to Kirkuk since 2003. A building frenzy is under way in Kurdish neighborhoods, and Kurds are expanding into predominantly Arab and Turkmen areas. They now dominate the local government and the police.

Mr. Shwani said that at the very least, his coalition would fight to establish ownership rights for squatters, including many Kurds in Kirkuk.

The Kurdish coalition and particularly Mr. Shwani’s party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, are under tremendous pressure to deliver on Kirkuk, given the challenge from a new splinter movement called Gorran, meaning “change,” a new Kurdish party that is challenging the entrenched — and it says corrupt — order.

Unofficial results from Dahuk, Erbil and Sulaimaniya — the three provinces that constitute the Kurdistan region — showed the Kurdistan Democratic Party in the lead, followed by Gorran and Mr. Shwani’s party.

Mr. Shwani argued that it was not only Kurds in Kirkuk who wanted to be part of the Kurdistan region. That desire was shared by Turkmens and Arabs, he said, who either voted directly for the Kurdish coalition or allied slates.

Officials in the Allawi camp scoffed at that, saying that the former prime minister’s strong showing posed a new counterweight to Kurdish influence. “We have restored equilibrium in Kirkuk,” said Mazen Abdul-Jabbar, who headed Mr. Allawi’s campaign there.

Others had stronger words. One of the front-runners on Mr. Allawi’s slate, Arshad al-Salihi, compared the Kurdish presence in Kirkuk to Israeli settlements.

Mr. Salihi, a leader in the Iraqi Turkmen Front, said about Kirkuk joining Iraqi Kurdistan, “They have to kill us first for it to happen.”

He said that he was the target of an assassination attempt last month and that American officials persuaded him to play down the episode so as not to provoke his followers. He now wears a bulletproof vest.

His sentiments were echoed on the streets. “He will stop Kirkuk from going to Kurdistan because Kirkuk is for Turks,” said Sondous Ahmed, 25, a Turkmen, who had voted with her brother for Mr. Salihi.

In former insurgent strongholds west of the city, where polling places were blown up in the previous elections, Sunni Arabs came out in droves to cast their votes, laughing off threats from a group linked to Al Qaeda.

A dozen people interviewed in the central market of Hawija, a town just west of Kirkuk, said they voted for Mr. Allawi’s slate because he was “nonsectarian” and would “keep Iraq united.”

Sheik Hussein al-Jubouri heads Hawija’s district council and commands a 9,000-strong force — part of the American-backed Awakening Councils, which have yet to be integrated into the Iraqi government’s security forces. He backed Mr. Allawi’s slate and held large gatherings before the elections preaching to tribesmen to silence their guns and “give politics a chance.”

Mr. Jubouri said that Mr. Allawi’s bloc should insist on another election in Kirkuk, a position seconded by leaders of the influential Obeid tribe in Kirkuk, who also backed Mr. Allawi.

A compromise in last year’s election law allowed voting to take place in Kirkuk with the proviso that a special parliamentary committee would be given a year after the elections to examine irregularities in the voter register.

Sheik Abdullah Sami al-Obeidi, one of the leaders of the Obeid tribe and a member of the Kirkuk provincial council, accused Kurdish parties of issuing fake food ration cards for almost 62,000 families. The cards are used as the basis of the voting register.

Mr. Shwani, the Kurdish candidate, denied the accusations, and said his coalition had lodged at least 60 complaints about the voting in Hawija, most of them concerning male heads of households voting on behalf of their wives and children.

Tribal leaders in Hawija confirmed that tribal customs prohibited “young women” from venturing out of their homes to vote.

All of this could delay definitive election results in Kirkuk.

Turhan Abdul-Rahman, Kirkuk’s deputy police chief, said the situation was highly volatile, given that all political parties were armed. “American forces in Kirkuk are the only counterbalance,” he said.

The United States military, which keeps about 5,000 soldiers in Kirkuk, worked to try to guarantee a safe election. American soldiers stood outside polling centers, patrolled the streets and operated joint checkpoints. Even before the vote, American officials warned political leaders to tone down campaigning, which threatened on several occasions to escalate into armed clashes.

Col. Larry Swift said the American presence in Kirkuk had a “calming effect” on all political players.

“Impartiality is our biggest asset here,” he said.