KIRKUK, Iraq (AP) â€” Seeking to head off an explosion of ethnic violence, the United Nations will call for a power-sharing system of government for Iraq’s deeply divided region of Kirkuk in the oil-rich north.
A draft U.N. plan, outlined to The Associated Press by two Western officials, aims to defuse dangerous tensions. Kurds, a majority in the region, have been trying to wrest control from Arabs, Turkomen and other rival ethnic groups. If open warfare breaks out, it could jeopardize the U.S. goal of stability across Iraq before elections at year’s end.
Peaceful elections are critical to reducing the U.S. presence in Iraq, promised by President Barack Obama.
The U.N. has played only a minor role in Iraq since 2003, when its Baghdad headquarters was destroyed by a truck bomb. Now, officials in Kirkuk say the U.N. efforts may be the last chance for a peaceful outcome.
Without a resolution, “I think Kirkuk will be like a TNT barrel and explode and burn everybody,” Iraqi parliament lawmaker Mohammed Mahdi Amin al-Bayati, a Turkoman, said in an interview this week.
Deputy Gov. Rakan Saeed al-Jubouri, a Sunni Arab, agreed.
“Violence is very easy to start in Iraq,” he said in a separate interview.
Slightly larger than Connecticut and dubbed by Saddam Hussein as Tamin province, Kirkuk is a land dotted with flaming smoke stacks on its oil fields and bustling markets. Its future hinges on whether its 1.3 million people will be run by Baghdad or by Irbil, the capital of the politically autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq.
Kurds make up an estimated 52 percent of Kirkuk’s population. Arabs represent 35 percent. Turkomen, ethnic Turks with close ties to Turkey, make up about 12 percent. About 12,000 Christians live in Kirkuk.
Kurds want the province to be wrapped into Kurdistan. Arabs and Turkomen vehemently oppose this.
“You cannot give up the opinion of the majority and give a small group of people what they want just because they ask for it,” said Sarteep Mohammad Hussein Kakai, a Kurdish member of the Iraqi parliament.
Deep suspicions among ethnic groups in Kirkuk are partially rooted in its past under Saddam Hussein. Tens of thousands of Kurds were killed, and more than 1,100 of their villages razed, under his Arabization program.
Last December, a suicide bomber killed at least 55 people in a packed restaurant near Kirkuk where Kurdish and Arab leaders were trying to reconcile differences.
The long-awaited U.N. report on Kirkuk will outline options for compromise, but “we are not pushing them into any particular direction,” said spokeswoman Randa Jamal.
A draft of the U.N. plan, according to two Western officials who have read it, offers five options. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the report has not been finalized and they are not authorized to speak publicly about it.
Three of the options in the draft likely will be dismissed immediately as too extreme or unworkable, the officials said. The remaining two are:
_Making Kirkuk a “special status” province where both Iraq’s Shiite-led central government and the Kurdish government in Irbil could have power. Final decisions would be left to provincial officials. The special status would likely last between three and 10 years, giving officials more time to figure out Kirkuk’s final status.
None of Iraq’s 17 other provinces, including the three that make up Kurdistan, currently has such an agreement.
_Making Kirkuk politically autonomous but still somewhat reliant on Baghdad for funding. This plan, favored by the Turkomen with political ties to Turkey, also would allow Kirkuk to collect revenue from federally owned North Oil Corp. refineries in the province.
Details of the formulas are still being negotiated. Remaining sticking points include how jobs will be divided among each group, and when, and who can be counted as a legal resident among the 400,000 Kurds who moved to Kirkuk after Saddam’s ouster. Arabs and Turkomen call them illegal squatters.
“Ultimately, they need to come together to resolve this issue, because it’s not going to get any prettier with time,” said Howard Keegan, the State Department’s top envoy in Kirkuk.
Smoking Marlboros at his desk at the government building in downtown Kirkuk, Province Council chairman Rizgar Ali said he could accept a special status for Kirkuk â€” but still tied to Kurdistan. He accused Arabs and Turkomen of stalling on an agreement.
“You can’t go on like this,” Ali said. “This kind of thing killed Iraq.”
Saeed, the top-ranking Arab in Kirkuk, signaled he could support making Kirkuk autonomous. Anything connecting Kirkuk to Kurdistan would be rejected, however.
“We will resist that by all means, because this will erase our identity,” Saeed said.
Ultimately, the dispute may be solved only if Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani personally agree to compromise.
The U.S. has encouraged power-sharing in a country where Shiites dominate in the south, Sunnis in the west and Kurds in the far north. Bitter sectarian fighting and ethnic cleansing have deepened mistrust.
In recent weeks Barzani has alleged that al-Maliki is drifting toward authoritarian rule. Al-Maliki says Iraq’s central government is too weak, and that granting provinces too much power risks de-facto partition that would invite foreign meddling.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. military leader in Iraq, said in a recent AP interview that “ultimately they have to solve this problem in Baghdad.” And in a January visit to Kirkuk, Vice President Joe Biden told local leaders they had a year to show significant success in settling the dispute â€” or potentially face it alone.
“The Americans should understand we cannot guarantee there will not be a civil war when they leave,” said Turkoman councilman Hassan Toran