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After the bloodbath

"After the bloodbath" Continued...

Issue: "Bleeding economy," Oct. 18, 2008

"I wish elections would take place tomorrow," said Kashmoula, fingering prayer beads in an office that went completely dark with a power outage during our interview. On the day we met, the Baghdad parliament passed a long-debated law governing provincial elections. Under it voters are scheduled to go to the polls in Nineveh and Iraq's 16 other provinces-but not in Kirkuk-by the end of this year or early next year.

In Kirkuk, where Sunni Arabs and Turkmen oppose giving control of the historically Kurdish city to the Kurdish regional government, a fact-finding commission from the central government in Baghdad will begin this month to look more into holding a referendum, along with a citywide census, before provincial elections in the coming year; some say that is optimistic. Under the constitution a referendum should be held in connection with provincial elections to determine if Kirkuk remains under direct Baghdad supervision or becomes part of the Kurdish area.

New construction is up in Kirkuk, judging by the buildings rising concrete block by concrete block on its northern outskirts. Oilfields shoot brilliant flares skyward again along the city's western fringe. And violence is down 80 percent from two years ago, according to provincial governor Abdul Rahman Mustafa. "Kirkuk is different from other provincial conflicts and has become a national problem" because it has held up elections, he said. "But there is a lot of faking and exaggerating the facts, describing Kirkuk as a tinderbox of ethnic, regional, and sectarian violence, when it is no such thing."

Mustafa is ethnically a Kurd but politically independent. He laughs when asked how a homegrown politician in a divided city like Kirkuk can survive as an independent. "I am endangering my life by staying independent, but my independence has provided me power to maintain my position." As a lawyer in the city under Saddam's Arabization program, Mustafa could not issue contracts or engage in rent agreements on behalf of Kurds, only Arabs. He remembers how the city was nearly emptied of Kurds and of half its Christian population.

Mustafa has broad support in the city, but he recognizes that voters-like their counterparts in the United States-grow weary of politicians who toy with their city's future. While voter turnout in 2005 topped 60 percent here, registration for upcoming elections is lagging at about 29 percent of eligible voters. Kirkuk's status needs to be decided, he said, so that bigger issues can be confronted-like the fact that there is no airport, only minimal hospital care, and poor sewage.

"What is sad about Kirkuk is that everything here feels temporary, as if people are ready to leave at a moment's notice, especially Kurdish people," said Tanya Gilly, a member of parliament representing Kirkuk who divides her time between Baghdad and Kirkuk, where she lives in a neighborhood that receives running water two or three days per week. "Everyone feels they are in limbo and it will not change."

Throughout September a UN monitoring team met with Mosul and Kirkuk officials to work through the complexities of holding elections while a mass migration of Iraqis continues. Millions of Iraqis in the south and central areas have fled north and outside the country to escape violence. Those who have registered as internally displaced persons, or IDPs, will have the right to vote wherever they are.

Others who were forced to move under Saddam Hussein's regime are now eligible to return to their original homes, and to receive government compensation of 20 million Iraqi dinars ($16,000) for housing. That means Kurds once forced out of Kirkuk may return; and Arabs from Basra, forced by Saddam to relocate to Kirkuk, may go back to Basra.

For Iraq's minorities, including its historic Christian churches and the parties that represent them, the provincial elections present a turning point. Outside Mosul in the plains of Nineveh province, Assyrian parties staged demonstrations in the week following the vote in parliament. Their complaint: As part of the new provincial law, parliamentarians scrapped Article 50, a constitutional clause designed to guarantee proportional representation for Christians and other minorities. Without it they say Christians will have no voice in Iraqi governance.

In Hamdaniyah, a town about 25 miles east of Mosul also known as Qaraqosh, the men turned out on the streets early for a Sunday morning, halting traffic as thousands marched to protest the election law. Iraqi police and army units in trucks with mounted gunners followed the protesters closely as they formed a thick snake through the streets of downtown, then gathered outside government offices in blazing midday sun for speeches. "We are demonstrating our demands for full autonomy for our people-this was provided for by our constitution in Article 50 and endorsed by the UN," said Hamdaniyah mayor Nissan Karumi. Similar demonstrations are planned throughout the region and as far north as Dohuk, a largely Kurdish city that has also become home to an estimated 10,000 displaced Iraqis, most from Mosul.

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