The ancient Iraqi city of Kirkuk has been called a ticking time bomb. Its stark ethno-sectarian divisions have drawn comparisons to Bosnia and the West Bank. The oil in the ground has petro-vultures circling, while an occupying American army tries to "advise and assist" locals on keeping their weapons on safety and tempers in check. Now, a whole new challenge is upon the conflicted city; and its painful past, chaotic present and oil-rich future seem ready to collide because of a census scheduled for Oct. 24.
(Update: The Iraqi government has delayed the census till Dec. 5.)
A population census would seem a simple thing, but in Kirkuk things don't roll that way. The city is claimed as an ancestral homeland by the Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Turkmen as well as a dwindling population of Christians whose stake in the city goes back 2,000 years. The 10 billion barrels of proven oil reserves buried just outside the city have only raised the stakes and sparked the interest of regional power players. There hasn't been a census of Kirkuk's Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen since 1956 and a fresh survey will only add rhetorical and statistical punch to the claims to the city and its surroundings of the newly established majority. Indeed, Arabs and Turkmen are threatening to boycott the census.
Already, accusations of demographic tampering are rampant. The Arabs accuse the Kurds, who swooped into the city in force after the 2003 United States-led invasion, of "re-Kurdifying" the city and province by bringing in and subsidizing hundreds of thousands of Kurds in recent years as well as monopolizing all the powerful positions. "The biggest threat to the future of Kirkuk is this census. We represent Arabs and Turkmen and we are calling on people not take part in it. Since 2003, the Kurds have had all the power and control. We are calling for a delay until the situation is better," says Shiek Abdul-Rahman Munshid al-Assi, 58, founder of the Arab Political Council to represent the area's Sunni population. Munshid, who spent a year in a U.S.-run prison on charges of aiding insurgents, said the Arab council has appealed to the United Nations, regional neighbors and the US to help postpone the census.
The Kurds deny allegations of a power-grab, and counter that Saddam Hussein's "Arabization" policies and ethnic cleansing campaigns displaced thousands of Kurds and Turkmen who were soon replaced with Arabs from southern Iraq. After decades of mountainous guerrilla warfare against Saddam's Iraqi army, the Kurds look at Kirkuk and its oil in terms of honor and lifeblood. "Kurds view Kirkuk as an integral part of Kurdistan. It is in an embodiment of the plight of the Kurds. It is symbolic of the most brutal suffering under Saddam. Resolution is important and profound for the Kurdish people and all Kurds want to see it resolved. The KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government] has accepted a constitutional arrangement, but we have not abandoned our claim," says Barham Salih, the prime minister of Kurdistan in interview at his residence in Erbil.
The Turkmen, who have aligned politically with the Sunni Arabs, feel marginalized by the Kurds despite remaining entrenched in the city's commercial district and retaining strong backers in Turkey, where most of Kirkuk's oil ends up. "If you ask an Arab or a Turkman about the census, they say we'll boycott and make sure it can't happen. If you ask a Kurd they say it will happen and we're going to make it happen," said Najim al-Alden Omer, 36, a Turkmen member of the Kirkuk police. "This city is like a leaking gas pipe, just waiting for someone to light it off," he adds.
The controversial census was mandated in the 2005 Iraq constitution as a precursor for a referendum on whether Kirkuk will become part of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, Iraq or an independent city-state. The poll aims to determine who can vote in the referendum. It was meant to be held in 2007, but sectarian violence and threats of civil war from the Kurds have postponed it time and time again. The Kurds, believing the numbers will buttress their claims, are intent on pushing the census through and claim the central government in Baghdad is behind them. "What I have heard from Prime Minsister Nuri al-Maliki and the Minister of Planning is that the census is on track. I have been assured it will proceed and I hope all the residents of Kirkuk participate in what is a scientific, rather than political process," says Abdul Rahman Mustafa, the Kurdish governor of Kirkuk.
Colonel Larry Swift, the commanding officer at Forward Operating Base Warrior in Kirkuk whose some 2,500 troops will be charged with security for the census, believes that local politicians are revving up social rivalries with what he calls "maximalist demands." "What's sad and frustrating is that the politicians are not just not helping they are actively trying to exacerbate the ethnic issues." Swift, however, doesn't thing chaos is imminent. "For this place to explode," he says, "you'd need congenital hatred on the street level and it's just not there. The drivers of instability reside in the government building."
Archbishop Louis Sako, leader of the millennia-old Chaldean Christian community in Kirkuk, takes it all in with a sigh. He earned a Masters degree in Islamic studies in Rome and a doctorate in Iraqi history from the Sorbonne. Sako has seen the Christian community in Kirkuk fall from 30,000 to about 11,000, many of his flock fleeing in fear of killings and kidnappings. He is known as a mediator between Kirkuk's divergent groups. Unlike Swift, what the archbishop hears troubles him. "Everybody here is waiting and they are afraid. People don't know if next year their house will belong to the Kurds or Baghdad. People are worried because they have no clear vision of the future. Even the church has no vision." Says Sako, "We are all vulnerable and it is no way to live."