Kirkuk dispute may delay Iraq elections
BAGHDAD - Iraqi politicians are dueling with new hostility over the fate of Kirkuk, the oil-rich city that both self-ruled Kurds in the north and Iraq’s central government want to control.
The dispute has caused a deadlock over an election law, threatening to delay Iraq’s nationwide parliamentary elections set for mid-January. Any vote setback could, in turn, disrupt American plans to withdraw troops from Iraq, scheduled to increase after the vote.
“The problem is that we are getting to a crisis,’’ said Marina Ottoway, director of the Middle East Program at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “They have been trying for over a year to reach a compromise on Kirkuk.
“Now, it is becoming a problem for the United States,’’ Ottoway said. “There is real pressure on the US military to draw down as soon as possible.’’
The United States has been watching the debate intensely for any repercussions it may have for the American military withdrawal. New violence in Iraq recently has raised the stakes.
At least 10 people were killed in bomb attacks yesterday, police said, including a bicycle bombing that killed five people in southern Iraq.
Major Muthana Khalid said the booby-trapped bicycle exploded at a popular fruit and vegetable market near Hillah, the capital of Iraq’s Babil Province, 60 miles south of Baghdad. Thirty-seven people were wounded in the attack, Khalid said.
In the western city of Ramadi, two people - including a police officer - were killed when twin car bombs exploded minutes apart in the visitors’ parking lot of the city’s Traffic Police Directorate.
Also yesterday, three people were killed when a bomb that was detonated remotely exploded on a bus as the vehicle approached a police checkpoint in the southern holy city of Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, officials said.
Kirkuk sits on a political and cultural fault line among ethnic Kurds and smaller groups of ethnic Arabs and Turkomen, or ethnic Turks.
Kurds consider Kirkuk a Kurdish city and want it part of their self-ruled region. But during the rule of former dictator Saddam Hussein, tens of thousands of Kurds were displaced under a forced plan by Hussein to make Kirkuk predominantly Arab.
Regaining control of the city is thus symbolic for Kurds, and many Kurds have returned since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. But other groups say Kurds have packed more Kurds into the city than before.
The immediate dispute centers on voting rolls listing who can vote in Kirkuk in the January national election. That has delayed the necessary deal on the election law.
Long-term, money also plays a role. Because of the surrounding oil fields, whoever controls Kirkuk stands to benefit enormously.
Under a plan by President Obama, all US combat troops will be out of the country by the end of August 2010, leaving about 50,000 trainers and support troops in Iraq. Those remaining troops would leave by the end of 2011.
US military commanders say the majority of the troop departures would come about 60 days after the planned Iraqi election, the idea being to get the country on stable footing before making any major troop changes.
Any delay in the election date could possibly push back the troop withdrawal.