Rival Groups See Iraqi Vote as Way to Claim Kirkuk
The claims over this oil-rich city are so contentious that they forced a delay in the national elections for two months as politicians debated how to apportion its votes. The balloting, now scheduled for Sunday, will be the first of any kind in the city for five years - and a measure of which group has the political clout to reinforce its claim.
The results could have far-reaching implications not only for this city but for the whole of Iraq.
Kirkuk is ground zero for potentially the most explosive conflict in Iraq in the era following the U.S. withdrawal over the next year - the struggle between Arabs and Kurds over a large swath of the country's north.
That competition is likely to sharpen regardless of which group emerges on top. The losers will probably accuse the winner of unfairly manipulating the results.
"The politics and the fate of Iraq hang on the fate of Kirkuk," said Jala Nefitchi, a Turkomen candidate. "There are several ethnic groups in Kirkuk, and each one wants to show that the identity of Kirkuk belongs to them."
Since the U.S. invasion in 2003, Kurds have flooded into Kirkuk in what they say is a correction to former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's policy of removing Kurds and bringing in Arabs to solidify his control of the city and its nearby oil fields. Kurds see Kirkuk as their "Jerusalem" and demand it be brought into their autonomous zone in the north, a zone many Kurds want one day to break away from Iraq.
Kirkuk's Arabs and their Turkomen allies, however, point to the constant construction in city suburbs as proof that the Kurds are coming back in even greater numbers than in the past in a bid to take control and have an edge if and when a referendum is held on Kirkuk's future, as is called for in the constitution.
Many fear that a referendum - or even a serious push to hold one - could spark violence. And what happens in Kirkuk could have an impact on a swath of territory claimed by the Kurds, stretching across Iraq from the Syrian to the Iranian border.
Even a recent program by the U.S. military aimed at fostering interethnic cooperation has raised suspicions. A few weeks ago, joint patrols teaming Kurdish, Iraqi and U.S. troops began operating in the city.
The Kurds have generally supported the patrols, but Arab and Turkomen officials complain the Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, are being allowed to infiltrate territory which is not theirs.
"I have reservations about the idea, and I have reservations on this U.S. Gen. Odierno," said Sheik Abdul-Rahman Minshid al-Assi, a prominent Sunni Arab political figure in Kirkuk, referring to the top military commander in Iraq, who lobbied for the patrols.
Kirkuk residents were left out of provincial elections last year because lawmakers could not decide how to carry out the voting. A similar debate last fall also threatened the parliament election.
Now that the election is coming, the excitement is palpable.
Campaign posters plaster just about every available surface, many showing candidates posing next to one of the city's modern symbols, the "eternal flame" of the oil wells surrounding the city. From the windows of cars racing through the streets, young men wave flags of their political parties or of the Kurdish autonomous region. Parties are mainly ethnic-based so the flags waving from rooftops and buildings are a sure sign of whether any given neighborhood is mainly Arab, Turkomen or Kurdish.
Early in the campaign, the Kirkuk governor met with all the political parties, as well as the U.S. military, and urged them to tone down fiery rhetoric and put an end to the high-speed political car rallies, which sometimes saw rivals trying to run each other off the road.
Many Arab and Turkomen candidates complain about harassment and what they call "provocative acts" by the Kurds, particularly the waving of the Kurdish flag. One Turkomen candidate said Kurdish police forces came to his house last week, briefly held his brother hostage and flew a Kurdish flag from his roof to intimidate him. His account could not be independently verified.
The tension is not strictly between Kurds and Arabs. If anything, it's even more intense among the Kurds.
Kurdish politics have long been dominated by two main parties - the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. But a newcomer party called "Gorran" or "Change" in Kurdish is making waves in Kirkuk after faring surprisingly well in last summer's elections for the Kurdish autonomous zone's parliament.
Gorran supporters say their Kurdish opponents are pushing back. One Gorran campaign worker, Hama Rasheed Mohammed, meets guests at his home with an AK-47, which he said he keeps with him at all times following telephone death threats.
"The two main Kurdish parties have done nothing for the poor people," he said.
Officials from the PUK and KDP deny harassing anyone.
"When there is an election in Iraq, before the election, each group prepares claims and every other day they will present a portion of these claims. It's a tradition," said Rifat Abdulla, a PUK official.
The election, which determines the city's 12 seats in the 325-member parliament, could also open the door to further disputes. Under the compromise that finally allowed Baghdad to pass an election law, Kirkuk's Arabs and Turkomen can challenge the results if they show an abnormally high amount of growth in the number of voters - possibly the result of Kurds moving in.
The election's significance could be in measuring the mood in Kirkuk, said Marina Ottoway, of the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for Peace.
"If the seats in Kirkuk go overwhelmingly to Kurdish parties, then that sends a clear signal. If the vote is more divided then it's going to be much more difficult for the Kurds to argue that they can annex Kirkuk," Ottoway said.