Baghdad (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The first nation-wide census in Iraq since 1997, also the first one since the fall of Saddam Hussein, is becoming grounds for further factional and ethnic strife. The authorities have said that the Iraqi population will be counted on 24 October. However, many have called for a postponement or else the process would be boycotted. Under the circumstances, the census could be politicised in a country still waiting for a government seven months after parliamentary elections. Ultimately, the existing shaky balance of power could get even shakier.
The provinces of Nineveh, Kirkuk and Anbar are against the census, unmoved by outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s firm wish to see the census take place in all 18 Iraqi provinces on 24 October. In Nineveh, the northern province with Mosul as capital that is home to Arabs, Kurds and other minorities, the provincial council has postponed the census.
For Governor Athil al-Nujaifi, an Arab nationalist, the Peshmerga, the Kurdish militia that has occupied a number of areas over the past several years, must leave if the census is to go ahead. Kurdish forces from the two main Kurdish parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), must also leave their headquarters.
According to al-Nujaifi, both Peshmerga and Kurdish parties are trying to influence the situation in his province to the benefit of the Kurdish group. Kurds inhabit some areas in province, and the Kurdish regional government would like to annex them at the expense of the central government. One example is the Nineveh Plains, home to an important Christian community, which has been targeted by the Kurds for quite some time. According to Arab authorities in Nineveh, the KDP and the PUK are trying to bring in Kurds from other parts of Iraq in order to add them to the Nineveh voter lists.
In response to Arab claims, Kurds say that Nineveh historically belongs to them, insisting also that the census is a constitutional duty for the whole of Iraq, not just a single province. They point the finger at those who want to boycott the census, and note that Saddam Hussein’s Ba‘athist regime pursued a policy of forced “Arabisation” in northern Iraq at the expenses of the non-Arab population.
The situation is even more sensitive in Kirkuk. Here, Arabs and Turkmen have directly called for a boycott. For a long time, Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds have vied for control over the oil-rich multi-ethnic province. The census represents a fundamental step from a Kurdish point of view towards annexation. A population count is required under Article 140 of the constitution as a first step towards a referendum that would decide the status of Kirkuk, either as part of Kurdistan or as a province under the administration of the government in Baghdad.
The interests at stake in the province are huge. This is why no elections have been held in four years. The area’s energy resources are at the root of the problem. Kirkuk has the second biggest oil fields in Iraq and possesses 70 per cent of the country’s natural gas deposits. If a referendum gives the city to the Kurds, the latter might have the means to achieve independence from the rest of the country.
Nineveh and Kirkuk have been joined by the predominantly Sunni Arab province of Anbar, in western Iraq, in calling for a postponement of the census. The local provincial council decided last week to suspend the census until a new government is set up to supervise the process.