Middle East

Kirkuk ethnic tensions scupper Iraq census

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Media captionGabriel Gatehouse: "Kirkuk is still one of Iraq’s most unstable places."

Iraq was due to hold a census of its population on Sunday but the exercise was cancelled, largely due to a row over the status of the city of Kirkuk.

The area, which contains vast reserves of oil, is currently controlled by the Arab-dominated central government in Baghdad.

However, the town and its surrounding lands are also claimed by the autonomous Kurdish region in the north. The dispute has been causing rising tension in the city, still one of the most unstable in Iraq.

In Kirkuk's central market stands a man with a cart piled high with brightly coloured chocolate bars. He shouts out his wares in three different languages - Kurdish, Arabic and Turkic.

In this way, he hopes to maximise his business, appealing to the three major communities that live side by side in this city - the Kurds, the Arabs, and the Turkmens.

Climb up to Kirkuk's ancient citadel, and high above the town the multi-ethnic babble of the market place gives way to the mingled din of a dozen mosques and their competing calls to prayer.

But look beyond the domes and the minarets that recede into the distance, and you will see giant flares leaping up into the sky.

These come from oil wells on the outskirts of the city. Oil is what this battle for demographic control is all about.

Balance of power

In al-Wassaty, a predominantly Arab neighbourhood, Mustafa Bedawi, a young father, runs a small electrical goods store.

It is a poor part of town, with rubbish strewn all over the streets. Children play table football in a covered alleyway.

Mr Bedawi came to Kirkuk from Baghdad in 2006, during the sectarian killing. He found refuge here, but now, he says, he is being pushed out.

"At the end of September, some Kurds knocked on the door and asked for our documents," Mr Bedawi told us.

"They said: 'You have to leave in 24 hours.' There were six of them, armed with pistols."

In the 1980s and 1990s, Saddam Hussein pursued a deliberate policy of "Arabisation" in Kirkuk, expelling Kurds from the area while persuading Arabs to move in.

Now the balance of power is shifting in the opposite direction, and the Kurds are in the ascendancy over the Arabs and their Turkmen allies.

'Out for revenge'

Local Arab leaders say that encounters like Mr Bedawi's have been happening more and more frequently in recent months.

Image caption Kirkuk is still one of the most unstable cities in Iraq

Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Aasi, a local Arab tribal chief, showed us threatening letters, which he says have been distributed in Arab areas.

"Kirkuk belongs to the Kurds," the letters say, threatening Arab residents to leave the city or face the consequences.

"They humiliate us, we have lost our rights," said Mr al-Aasi. Asked if he could envisage Arabs and Kurds resorting to armed conflict, he answered simply: "Yes."

"All of this has contributed to increasing hatred among our people, and everyone is out for revenge. This is where the danger lies," he added.

The local Kurdish authorities deny any knowledge of, or involvement in, this kind of intimidation.

They say they were the original victims of injustice under Saddam Hussein, when tens of thousands were forced to flee the city.

Indeed, says Ahmed Askari, a local Kurdish politician, Kirkuk's Kurds continue to face an influx of Iraqi Arabs.

"The Arabs are coming from the south and the middle of Iraq, they are coming to Kirkuk. [These are] displaced people who want to be integrated in Kirkuk. This is another type of Arabisation."

Kirkuk's demographics are changing rapidly.

Since the invasion in 2003, tens of thousands of Kurdish families have moved back into the city from the autonomous north, where they had sought refuge under Saddam Hussein.

They can apply for financial assistance from the government to help with the move. Money is also available for Arabs who settled in Kirkuk during the 1980s and 1990s who now want to move back to their original homes.

But far fewer have taken up this offer.

Oil revenues

We found Rozhgar Kameran Ali, a Kurd, working on his new house in what was once a Saddam-era army barracks. He was just 10 years old when his parents were ordered to leave Kirkuk. Now he is back, building a new home for his own young family.

"This is my town," he says. "It's my father's home town and my grandfather's home town. I had to come back."

Image caption Rozghar Kameran Ali is back in Kirkuk after his family were forced to leave when he aged 10

There is a historic sense of purpose about Mr Ali as he shovels dirt in his concrete shell of a home. His return, and the return of thousands others like him, is boosting the Kurdish side in this battle for facts on the ground.

At stake are billions of dollars worth of oil-revenues.

Kirkuk province contains 13% of Iraq's proven reserves. But the real figure could be much higher - by some estimates, as much as 4% of global oil-reserves could lie buried in the ground beneath Kirkuk.

The area is still one of the most unstable in Iraq. For now, the violence comes mostly from al-Qaeda and Sunni insurgents, keen to exploit the city's ethnic fault-lines.

Unlike in other parts of Iraq, US troops maintain a fairly high profile, patrolling the city and manning checkpoints on its outskirts.

"Kirkuk being the melting pot of Iraq, there's the propensity for tensions," says Col Joe Holland, an American officer in charge of one checkpoint.

"And as a result of the propensity for those tensions, we're out a little bit more visible. We're here to essentially help them get through all of that over the next period of time until we complete the mission."

That mission is due to end in a year's time. The former commander of US forces in Iraq, Gen Raymond Odierno, recently mooted the possibility of a United Nations peacekeeping force to stabilise the region after the American departure.

But the UN currently has no plans to provide such a force.

The fear is that, without a US presence to keep the peace, the Arabs and the Kurds could decide to settle their differences through conflict rather than dialogue.