06/05/2008, 00.00
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Kurdish authorities ready to give up on Kirkuk referendum

The Kurdish prime minister says he is ready for “a solution, not especially a referendum.” Latest postponement ends in late June. A compromise raises hope for greater stability; Erbil might like possible solution as well.

Baghdad (AsiaNews) – Iraq’s Kurdistan region said it is prepared to solve the Kirkuk issue through a power-sharing agreement with the Arabs, thus giving up on a plan to hold a referendum to determine the status of the city. For the first time Kurdish authorities have stated that they want break the current stalemate which has existed for years.

We are “pushing for a solution, not especially a referendum,” Nechirvan Barzani, prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, said quoted in Reuters. “We have asked the UN to be technically involved because the situation is complicated.”

Kurds, who view Kirkuk as their historical capital, now appear willing to compromise after long time resistance to any settlement other than a popular referendum, which they expected to win because their numbers in the city have grown substantially since the end of the 2003 war after suffering under Saddam Hussein’s violent arabisation policy.

Under the Iraqi constitution, a referendum was to be held in Kirkuk late last year but has been postponed several times; the latest is set to expire later this month.

The city’s ethnically composite population—Kurds, Assyrian-Chaldeans, Turkmen and Arabs—is supposed to decide whether the province joins the Kurdistan region, remains under Baghdad's jurisdiction or is given special status as an independent region.

It is unlikely however to take place under present circumstances.

Too many interests are at stake. The city and its immediate region sit on Iraq’s second largest oil field and have 70 per cent of the country’s natural gas.

Should the “Kurdish option” prevail in a referendum, the Kurdish government in Erbil would have at its disposal a vital resource that might provide it with the means to seek independence from the rest of Iraq, an option resisted by its neighbours Syria, Turkey and Iran, countries already faced with pro-independence demands from their own Kurdish populations.

Such a scenario also worries Washington, concerned of creating another front of ethnic tensions.

For this reason a compromise over Kirkuk might be seen as useful by the Kurdish government. It would improves relations with Ankara, which has already threatened military action should Kirkuk be annexed to Kurdistan. It would also convince the Iraqi government to make serious concessions toward the Kurds; for instance, recognising their oil deals with foreign firms which Baghdad considers illegal. It might also improve relations with Kurdistan’s neighbours and local security as well as attract more foreign investment.

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