- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 30, 2005

One city where Iraq’s disaffected Sunnis are expected to vote in large numbers is Kirkuk — and that presents problems of its own.

The oil-rich provincial city is proving a flash point for Iraq’s ethnic and religious tensions, with Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Christians and a host of smaller minorities all competing for power.

The Association of Muslim Scholars, a leading hard-line Sunni clerical group, which has urged a boycott of the national assembly elections, last week urged Sunni Arabs in Kirkuk to turn out in force for provincial elections there.

The reason: to counter the votes of Kurds, who are flocking to the city to reclaim what they see as the historic center of their region and, for some, the site of the future capital of an independent Kurdish nation.

The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, warned in a report last week that Kirkuk’s volatile ethnic mix makes it one of the biggest threats to stability inside Iraq and could spark a regional conflict as well.

“In northern Iraq, largely unnoticed, a conflict is brewing that, if allowed to boil over, could precipitate civil war, the breakup of the country, and in a worst-case scenario, Turkish intervention,” the report said.

Recognizing Kirkuk’s economic and strategic importance, former dictator Saddam Hussein began a brutal policy to expel ethnic Kurds and resettle more loyal Iraqi Arabs in the city. Since Saddam’s ouster in April 2003, Kurds have been returning in large numbers, demanding the return of their property.

Turkey has asserted a direct interest in Kirkuk’s fate, fearing Kurdish control of the city would harm Iraq’s ethnic Turkmen, a sizable minority in the city with close cultural ties to Turkey. Ankara also argues that moves toward an independent Kurdish state in Iraq would revive separatist movements among Turkey’s own Kurdish minority.

Iraq’s Kurdish parties threatened to boycott the election earlier this month if Kurdish refugees displaced by Saddam were not allowed to vote in Kirkuk.

Iraqi election officials agreed, but that decision upset Kirkuk’s Arab population, which faces the prospect of being swamped in the vote.

The Association of Muslim Scholars modified its boycott order after a plea from Mohammed Khalil, a Sunni Arab candidate for the Kirkuk provincial governing council. But the Sunni clerics decreed that followers could only vote in the race for the provincial council and should boycott the national elections.

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