Battle over oil-rich city threatens to derail Iraqi elections

By Leila Fadel and Sahar Issa | McClatchy Newspapers

BAGHDAD — Despite intense U.S. pressure, Iraqi legislators Sunday failed to reach an agreement to solve an increasingly bitter dispute over the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk.

Kirkuk sits on Iraq’s northern oil fields and also on a fault line between the Sunni Muslim Kurds who dominate most of northern Iraq and the Sunni Arabs who occupy the center of the country. Saddam Hussein forced thousands of Kurds out of the city to make way for more Arabs, but since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the Kurds and their militia, the peshmerga, have driven many Sunni Arabs out of Kirkuk.

The parliament’s inability to resolve the dispute over the city mirrors Iraqi political leaders’ inability to make progress on other fronts, including constitutional amendments and the passage of a law governing the distribution of the country’s oil revenues, despite the recent improvements in security.

The Kirkuk dispute is blocking passage of a law governing provincial elections that originally were scheduled for October. The parliament was to hold a special session Sunday to deal with the disagreement and clear the way for passage of the elections law. However, the lawmakers never met as intense negotiations among party leaders and senior legislators continued.

The parliament passed the provincial elections law earlier this month despite a walkout by Kurdish legislators and their allies. But Iraq’s presidency council immediately vetoed it following criticism from Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd.

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker has been heavily involved in negotiations to end the impasse. Crocker attended meetings on Saturday, and late Sunday he met with Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki; Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan region; and other political heavyweights.

President Bush, meanwhile, called Iraqi Vice President Adil Abdul Mahdi Sunday and urged all sides to reach an agreement, according to a statement from Abdul Mahdi’s office.

Arab and Turkomen legislators voiced frustration at the American pressure, fearing that a rapid decision could spark further violence among ethnic groups in Kirkuk and the surrounding areas.

“There is very obvious American pressure,” said Bassem Sharif al Hajeemi, a Shiite legislator involved in the negotiations. “Pressure on the politicians to reach an agreement that is not real will not work.”

Kurds in Kirkuk responded to the rejection of the election law, which called for the Kirkuk provincial council to be divided equally among Turkomen, Arabs and Kurds, with two seats for Assyrian Christians, by mounting a large demonstration that turned bloody following bombings that killed at least 25 people.

The Kirkuk provincial council, now dominated by Kurds and their allies, voted to make the province part of the Kurdistan region, which led to another demonstration by hundreds of Arabs and Turkomen.

In Kirkuk, anger is rising.

“What is the use of elections if the result is already decided before the elections take place?” asked Kenor Karim, 32, a Kurdish government employee in Kirkuk. “These are not elections and they have nothing to do with democracy . . . . Kurds are a majority.”

Arabs and Turkomen, however, said they want Kirkuk to remain part of Arab Iraq.

“We want Kirkuk to be a city of coexistence and peace. Its annexation to Kurdistan will cause problems because we and the Turkomen refuse to be part of the Kurdistan region,” said Mohammed Saadoun, an Arab.

McClatchy Special Correspondent Issa reported from Baghdad and Yasseen Taha contributed to this report from Suleimaniyah