Situation on Kirkuk gets murky as referendum on the region's future gets delayed by months

An attack on a demonstration protesting an Iraqi law kills twenty · Kurds call for a vote on uniting the city with the Kurdish Autonomous Region · Arabs and Turkmen oppose it

Kirkuk, one of the main cities in northern Iraq and the capital of an oil-rich region, has suffered one of its worst violent attacks since the U.S. invasion in 2003. On Monday, July 28, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a demonstration of Kurds protesting a new Iraqi election law and killed 22 people, according to Reuters AlertNet. The massacre marks an escalation of violence of the majority Kurds against the minority Turkmen in the city. All told, for months a referendum to decide whether Kirkuk integrates into the Kurdish Autonomous Region or remains under the control of the Iraqi government has been delayed.

The demonstrators were protesting a law approved by the Iraqi parliament on July 22, in which the deputies decided that at the end of 2008 provincial elections would be held throughout Iraq. This law, however, was passed without the collaboration of the Kurdish parliament (in fact, it only won 127 votes of the 275 deputies that make up the house of representatives) and the next day the president of Iraq, the Kurd Jalal Talabani, said he would oppose it.

Kurds fear becoming a minority

Why this Kurdish opposition? According to an article in The New York Times, the law proposed the creation of a provisional council in Kirkuk made up of ten Kurds, ten Arabs, ten Turkmen and ten Christians. This left Kurds in the minority, something they were not ready to accept. What is more, the Kurds view Kirkuk as a city that is historically Kurdish, and a large part of the current Arab residents of the city were installed by Saddam Hussein's regime to alter the ethnic composition of the city while thousands of Kurds, Turkmen and Assyrians (Human Rights Watch estimates 120,000 people) were expelled between 1991 and 2003. A census from 1957 shows that nearly two-thirds of the population was Kurdish.

The Kurds want a census to be carried out in the city to determine the current demographic situation. If the vote by the Provisional Council of Kirkuk of 2005 is taken into account, it seems the Kurds are the majority across the province (the unitary list of candidates that the Kurdish parties put forward won an absolute majority). However, in the last case, Kurds are calling for a referendum on whether Kirkuk should be integrated into the Kurdish Autonomous Region. This vote is established in the Iraqi constitution and in fact it should have been held November 15, 2007. The disagreements between Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen (the two former groups do not want to form a part of Kurdistan) made this impossible and still today the issue has been adjourned without it being know when a vote will be held. This uncertainty, according to leaders in the Kurdish Autonomous Region, could lead to violent confrontations in the region.

Turkmen ask for protection

Whether the Kurdish leaders are in the right or not, what is certain is that after yesterday's attack groups of Kurds outraged by the massacre stormed the offices of the Turkmen parties and set them on fire, according to the International Herald Tribune. At least 25 Turkmen were injured. In response, the president of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, Saadettin Ergeç, asked that the United Nations act to maintain peace in Kirkuk, according to Turkish Press. The Turkmen minority in Iraq is considered an ally of Turkey in the region. Ankara has previously warned that any Kurdish aggression against the Turkmen could provoke a Turkish invasion of Iraq's Kurdistan.

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