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Ethnic Groups Try to Stake Claim on Kirkuk

Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens Vie for Political Dominance in Divisive Elections

By Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 30, 2005; Page A16

KIRKUK, Iraq -- Mustafa Rafiq, a 21-year-old medical student, plans to vote in Sunday's elections -- a vote, he said, that in this northern Iraqi city has more to do with the past than the future.

Rafiq, like other ethnic Turkmens in Kirkuk, will cast his ballot on behalf of his heritage in a city that three ethnic groups are now fighting to control. He couldn't care less about the political aspirations or campaign promises of those running for office, he said.

Zaka Omar, left, sells gasoline on the black market in Kirkuk. Saddam Hussein's government had pressured him to change his ethnic status from Kurdish to Arab. He said he will vote "with spirit and a Kurdish spirit." (Jackie Spinner -- The Washington Post)

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"If you are voting, you are voting for yourself, not for the names on the list," Rafiq said.

Hundreds of seats in national and regional assemblies are at stake in the elections. Kirkuk is among many places where power is being contested, and nowhere in Iraq is the potential for post-election strife more acute.

Ethnic Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens all claim a right to govern this oil-rich city, and many Arabs and Turkmens believe that if the Kurds prevail, the city will be subsumed in the semiautonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq that has been outside the control of the Iraqi central government since 1991.

With the approach of the elections, tens of thousands of Kurds who were driven out of Kirkuk when former president Saddam Hussein held power have returned to vote, angering Arabs and Turkmens who say the balloting is being skewed against them.

"Many Kurds came from Turkey and Iran to participate in the elections," said Yawoz Omar Adel, the head of the Iraqi Turkmen Front in Kirkuk. "This will lead to ethnic strife and divide Iraq, especially Kirkuk. Therefore, we as Turkmens and Arabs will work until the last drop of our blood to unify Iraq and keep Kirkuk part of Iraq."

Increasing violence in recent days is compounding the tension. Polling centers have been attacked, Iraqi police officers have been targeted with gunfire and rockets, and the American forces that patrol the city have been hit by roadside bombs. Arab neighborhoods that once welcomed foreign visitors have become places to avoid, making it difficult to gauge the sentiment of residents.

Many Arabs say they plan to boycott the elections. The United Arab Front withdrew six days ago because of what it called preferential treatment of the Kurds by the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, which extended the voter-registration period for displaced Kurds returning to Kirkuk.

Ahmed Obaidi, the head of the Arab Bloc, said his group chose to remain on the ballot "just to prove our existence in Kirkuk and foil the plan of the Kurd parties, which will try to join Kirkuk to what is the so-called Kurdistan region."

He said his party would nonetheless refuse to recognize the results as legitimate. "The Sunni Arabs and Arab tribes consider the results of the elections as unfair and false," he said. "The Arabs and Turkmen are being marginalized in these elections."

Kurdish leaders have made no secret of their ultimate goal -- making Kirkuk part of the Kurdish region -- but it has not been openly a part of their campaign. Instead, they have said the future of Kirkuk would be determined within the structure of the central government, in which they hope to have significant representation.

"We have agreed that the subject of Kirkuk will not be a part of the election," said Sami Shoresh, culture minister for the Kurdish region.

Even if they do not ultimately bring the city under their regional control, Kurdish leaders say they are adamant about bringing back Kurds who were driven from their homes and replaced with Arab settlers under the Arabization campaign pursued by Hussein and his ruling Baath Party.

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