Election Monitoring in the Iraqi City of Kirkuk

Voting for a Kurdish Kurdistan

In the current parliamentary elections the Kurds have left no stone unturned to gain control over Kirkuk – they are not prepared to share the region's rich oil income. Birgit Svensson observed the election in the contested city for Qantara.de

Sunni Muslims look at the ballot of the forthcoming elections during their meeting in the city council in Kirkuk (photo: AP)
Fateful elections in Kirkuk: Should the Kurds gain greater influence here the city could be integrated into the Kurdish region consisting of the three provinces Erbil, Suleimanija and Dohuk

​​ Polling station 13907 rather resembles a bazaar. Hustle and bustle in every corner of Mamosta Raschad School, directly behind the citadel in the mainly Kurdish-populated part of Kirkuk.

People rush to and fro, stopping for discussions. A rumour seems to have gone around that it is easier to vote here, that the rules are dealt with more generously than elsewhere. The two young women sitting at the entrance to check ID cards as voters come in simply wave people through. Everyone seems to know one another. Girls in bright green and yellow party dresses, barely over 16, turn up at the polling stations and fill out their ballots.

A nervous returning officer

Even in Iraq you have to be 18 to vote, however. An elderly man in traditional Kurdish chalwar trousers, wearing a broad belt around his blouse-like top, wipes the indigo ink off his left forefinger, goes outside for a moment and comes back in five minutes later to vote again. His brother is registered here too, he justifies himself, but he couldn't come. He's in Canada.

The returning officer in charge of the polling station is visibly nervous when the international observers turn up. Everything's fine here, a young man on a bench opposite the polling booths in one of the five rooms calls out to the German and Italian visitors, "No

Kurdish rally in Kirkuk (photo: AP)
Heated election campaign: The Kurds in Kirkuk have long felt neglected by the central government and are now deliberately "de-Arabising" the city

​​ problems!"

For the first time, the Iraqi network "Shams", which monitors elections and referenda with 3000 staff around the country, has also installed 49 non-Iraqi "expats" to observe these parliamentary elections.

Three streets away the picture is very different: ID cards are examined thoroughly, registration is checked, ballot papers are stamped before they are handed out. Bekas polling station closes to the public at 5 pm on the dot.

Kurds confident of victory

The doors of the six polling stations are closed, and vote-counting begins. A good two hours later the results are out, posted on the door. The Kurdish parties KDP led by Mazoud Barzani and PUK under Jalal Talabani have a clear lead. Even on election evening, Kirkuk's Kurds are certain they have won seven of the city's thirteen seats in parliament, although the Independent Election Commission will hold a recount and the official outcome is only expected in a week's time.

Yet the Kurds are already confident of their victory, driving through town with flags flying from open-topped cars since the election on Sunday. They want to be sure of changing the majorities in Kirkuk and gaining control of the city.

De-Arabising of Kirkuk

These elections, they believe, are a step in the right direction. They hope to reverse the Arabisation programme introduced by Saddam Hussein in the 1970s, forcibly resettling thousands of Kurds.

Critics describe the de-Arabisation process since Hussain's downfall as rather problematic. Kurds originating from Kirkuk are being encouraged to resettle in the city, with two new quarters already created. There is a Kurdish reintegration official who allocates plots of land and start-up capital.

Oil refinery in Iraq (photo: AP)
Kirkuk is the centre of the Iraqi oil industry, yet the majority of the profit is controlled by the central government in Baghdad

​​ As a countermove, Arab families are being asked to leave. The objective of this demographic exchange is to integrate the oil-rich province of Kirkuk into the Kurdish region consisting of the three provinces Erbil, Suleimanija and Dohuk, expanding the existing autonomous regions. The full inclusion Kirkuk promises enormous gains: Kurdistan would then control some 40 percent of all crude oil extracted in Iraq – rather than the previous comparatively risible three percent.

Decisive referendum

Initially, the Kurds had a fairly good chance of gaining control over Kirkuk. According to the new Iraqi constitution, the problem was to be solved as long ago as 2007, with a referendum deciding whether the oil-rich city would join Kurdistan or not.

Yet that vote has not taken place to this day. UNO blames technical problems for the delay, yet the real cause is of a political nature. The separatist tones of the Kurdish regional government in Erbil give rise to fears that the region might split off from the rest of the country if Kirkuk is to come under Kurdish administration.

When it came down to redistributing seats in Baghdad in the run-up to the current parliamentary elections, a serious dispute broke out between the three largest ethnic groups. The scheduled election date at the end of January fell through and had to be postponed to March. A compromise was found: the Kurds who have moved back since 2004 were given the right to vote, with Arabs and Turkmen granted 13 rather than the previous twelve seats.

Election tourism

The election commission has registered 52,000 new names on the ballot lists, 2000 more than necessary for a seat in parliament. A seat that may be decisive for the balance of power in Kirkuk. On the evening before the election there were long queues at the city's entrance checkpoints – cars with registration plates from Erbil, Dohuk and Suleimanija. All of them were coming to Kirkuk to vote.

photo: AP
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki voting: The vote counts in Kirkuk could alter the country's balance of power drastically

​​ Arafa is opposite the citadel. The borough is also predominantly Kurdish, heavily guarded complete with checkpoints. The lower street leads to a residence fully surrounded by concrete pillars and barbed wire. In the old days it was the home of Saddam Hussein's feared cousin, known by the Iraqis simply as Chemical Ali – for the poison gas attacks on Kurds he ordered and carried out.

After the end of his era the house went to the US administration, and is now used by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Sometimes Iraq's president Jalal Talabani stays here, but at the moment Najmadin Karim is receiving guests.

"Kirkuk must become Kurdish"

The surgeon, returned home from the USA, heads the election list for the Kurdish Alliance and is highly likely to gain a seat in Baghdad. Kirkuk will only be able to develop under Kurdish administration, he claims with a good dose of confidence: "Just look what Baghdad does for this city – nothing!" The infrastructure is absolutely disastrous, he says, with very little investment going on. Nothing has happened in the past seven years, he tells us. "Yet Kirkuk is a wealthy city."

He brushes aside the idea that more money would come into the city under the new budget. No sign of the one dollar per barrel of oil promised to Kirkuk in the future has yet arrived, he says. Karim remains firm: "Kirkuk must become Kurdish." As a member of parliament, he states, he will make sure article 140 of the constitution is finally implemented, providing for a new regulation of the regional boundaries and a corresponding referendum.

Karim roundly rejects the proposal from Arabs, Turkmen and UNO to make Kirkuk an autonomous city with its own administration. The name Karim means "generous". Yet there is no sign of generosity in the former residence of Chemical Ali today.

Birgit Svensson

© Qantara.de 2010

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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