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Iraqi security inspect the destroyed Baghdad Governorate building targeted by a suicide bomber Oct. 25, 2009. (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/Getty Images)
Iraqi security inspect the destroyed Baghdad Governorate building targeted by a suicide bomber Oct. 25, 2009. (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/Getty Images)

Patrick Martin

Iraq's oil-rich province of Kirkuk vulnerable to violence Add to ...

An organization calling itself al-Qaeda in Iraq has claimed responsibility for Sunday's deadly bombings in Baghdad that killed 155 people.

Earlier this month, the same group claimed it carried out a suicide car bombing that killed 11 Iraqi policemen here in the capital of the ethnically diverse and oil-rich province of Kirkuk. The police were part of a special unit charged with guarding the area's oil facilities.

This Kirkuk attack may prove the more ominous, for if there is to be further armed conflict in Iraq, this is where it is likely to be, as a showdown looms between Arab and Kurd over who has the better claim to the province.

Already, in the past three months, more than 200 people have been killed in assorted bombings and assassinations in this province and in nearby Ninewa.

The issue of Kirkuk also is bedevilling federal lawmakers in Baghdad. An attempt to agree on a new election law collapsed Tuesday over the issue of who would be eligible to vote in Kirkuk.

When Kurdish peshmerga (meaning those who face death) rushed into Kirkuk from their position northeast of the city in early April of 2003, they were doing more than contributing to the U.S. defeat of Saddam Hussein's forces: They were laying claim to what Jalal Talibani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and now President of Iraq, calls "the Kurdish Jerusalem."

They also were serving notice that the territory, and its extensive oil reserves, rightfully belong to Kurdistan.

In the 1991 Kurdish uprising against Saddam Hussein, which had followed the Iraqi setback in the first Gulf War, Kurdish forces had fallen back to a ceasefire line that stretched across northern Iraq from the Syrian to the Iranian borders. This Green Line, as it would become known, fell well short of encompassing all the Kurdish towns and villages. Many, including the city of Kirkuk, were left in Saddam's hands.

On April 10, 2003, the Kurds took back a lot of that territory, claiming most of it as Kurdistan's. The Green Line from 1991 to 2003 has been replaced by a new "trigger line," a position from which Kurdish leaders say they will not withdraw. And the disputed territories fall in between.

Ramadan Rashid, who turned 50 that year, was the leader of the Kurdish underground in Kirkuk. With a small satellite phone he had been directing U.S. air strikes against targets in the city. When Saddam's forces fled Kirkuk, and PUK peshmerga moved in to fill the void, Mr. Rashid rejoiced.

"As far as I was concerned, we were just taking back what was ours," he said.

Over the years of Baath Party rule, a program of Arabization had reduced the Kurdish population in Kirkuk considerably, while increasing the number of Arabs in the city by encouraging immigration from the South.

By the time the Kurds had "liberated" Kirkuk in 2003, the Kurdish majority was gone.

They quickly set about reversing that trend. In a program they refer to as "normalization" and Arabs refer to as takrid , or Kurdization, Arabs who had been brought into the city were "encouraged" to leave, often with financial incentives. Some left out of fear. At the same time, Kurds were encouraged to return to the city of their birth. The northern outskirts of Kirkuk are filled with newly built Kurdish homes.

Today, the conflict is over who has the right to govern here, and where does the future of the province lie.

Kurds want to have elections in Kirkuk; every other province and city has held them. Arab and Turkomen residents have objected to the idea, since the 2005 provincial vote created a government dominated by Kurds. They say that Kurds benefited from inflated numbers at that time and the numerical disparity has only grown since.

While there has been no national census conducted (also postponed because of the Kirkuk issue), most parties agree that the number of Kurds in Kirkuk province has grown to more than 1.2 million today from about 800,000 in 2003, an increase of 50 per cent.

"That's a perfectly normal growth rate," said Rizgar Ali, the Kurdish head of the provincial council, "when you take into account both natural growth and the return of thousands of families."

Rakhan Saeed, the Arab deputy governor of Kirkuk, disagrees. "There are a lot of fake documents being used by people to register as residents. There's no way that many are legitimate Kirkuk people."

"We want elections, too," he said, "but fair ones."

What he and many Arab and Turkomen leaders want is a power-sharing arrangement that would allot 32 per cent of the provincial seats to Kurds, 32 per cent to Arabs, 32 per cent to Turkomen and 4 per cent to remaining, mostly Christian, groups.

"That way, no one feels they are second-class citizens," Mr. Saeed said.

Kurdish leaders say they are happy to share power, but after an election determines what share each major party should get. The concept, known as muhasasa , has been widely practised almost everywhere in the country. Even federal cabinet positions are assigned that way.

As for the future, Kurds want to hold a referendum to decide whether the province should join the three other provinces that make up the Kurdistan Regional Government. The KRG still is part of Iraq, but with a special regional status.

For the same reason they oppose elections until a proper census is conducted, Arabs and Turkomen object to a referendum.

"The only referendum we favour is one in which all Iraqis are asked if Kirkuk should become part of Kurdistan," said Mr. Saeed, using an idea familiar to Canadian federalists. Indeed, the Iraqi constitutional battles are a lot like Canada's, but with guns.

Mr. Saeed said that even if the people of Kirkuk are ultimately required to hold a referendum of their own, a decision to become part of the KRG should be approved "by at least 75 per cent of the people."

"If there's any attempt to impose a decision on us, people will fight," he said.

In the meantime, the city and province of Kirkuk are governed by a mostly Kurdish administration, while members of a special police force stand guard every 100 metres or so in mixed and Arab neighbourhoods, keeping what passes for peace.

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