Iraq's Next Civil War

Seven bombs detonating in the space of 35 minutes sent up clouds of black smoke over the centre of Kirkuk earlier this week. The explosions in Arab and Turkoman districts killed 12 people and injured 39 but exactly who was behind them is unclear. Kirkuk is a place where trust is in short supply. "I firmly predict there will be a rumour the Kurds were behind these bombings," sighs Rafat Hamarash, the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Kurdish political party that largely controls the city. He said somebody wanted to stir up ethnic divisions between Kurd, Arab and Turkoman before they vote on the future of Kirkuk in nine months' time. Mr Hamarash is probably right about the motives for the latest attacks. The city is approaching a critical moment in its long history. In December, there is a referendum, its timing agreed under the Iraqi constitution, when 1.8 million people of Kirkuk province will vote on whether or not to join the highly autonomous Kurdish region that is already almost a separate state. Kurds will vote in favour and probably win; Arabs and Turkomans will vote against and lose.

The Kirkuk issue is as notoriously divisive in Iraq as sovereignty over certain parts of Ireland used to be in British politics. Winston Churchill famously complained that, after all the political and military cataclysms of the First World War, the question of who should have "the dreary spires of Fermanagh and Tyrone", remained as ferociously contested as before the war.

The control of Kirkuk divided Kurds from Arabs in Iraq under Saddam Hussein and continues to do so. The city is commonly called "a powder keg" though it has yet to explode. But that does not mean it will not happen and the referendum might just be the detonator for that explosion.

The Kurds believe they were a majority in the city until ethnically cleansed by Saddam and replaced by Arab settlers. As the regime crumbled in April 2003, the Kurds captured Kirkuk and its oilfields. They have no plans to give them up.

In negotiations in Baghdad with Arab political parties, they fought for and won the right to take back Kirkuk constitutionally.

First comes "normalisation", to be concluded by the end of this month, whereby Arab settlers leave and Kurds return. After that there will be a census and, finally, before the end of 2007, a referendum on becoming part of the Kurdistan regional government.

It now looks as if the referendum will have to be postponed. No Kurdish leader I spoke to thinks it can take place on time. "Normalisation" has not really taken place, governments in Baghdad have persistently dragged their feet. The Shia religious parties may be allied to the Kurds in order to form a government but they fear political damage among their own followers if they are seen to be handing over Kirkuk to the Kurds.

For a city so coveted by Arabs and Kurds, Kirkuk is a dismal place, drearier than anything to be seen in Fermanagh or Tyrone. Its main street, with little booths selling shoddy goods, looks like an Afghan shanty town.

It has never benefited from its oil riches; Saddam deliberately neglected it. Rezgar Ali, the head of the local council, says Baghdad starves the city of money. At one point, he threatened to retaliate by stopping the supply of cement from local factories to Baghdad.

The Kurds may delay the referendum but not indefinitely. Kirkuk is too central to their national demands. Militarily they could overcome Arab resistance though they might have to cede certain areas. Whatever happens, the approach to the referendum is generating more violence.

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