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Can the U.N. avert a Kirkuk border war?

The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq is expected to unveil a plan in May that it hopes will lead to a compromise over contentious land issues in oil-rich northern Iraq.

By Sam DagherCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 25, 2008

Homeland: Ali Mahdi, a Turkmen deputy in Kirkuk, points to a map of the historic Turkmen community in Iraq.

Sam Dagher

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Kirkuk provincial council head Rizgar Ali says one proof of the province's "Kurdishness" is in the maps.

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Several maps dating from the Ottoman and British colonial eras hang on his office walls showing the city of Kirkuk at the heart of a Kurdistan that spans parts of Iran, Syria, and Turkey. A 1957 map shows Kirkuk Province's original border prior to it being renamed Tamim and then altered by Saddam Hussein's Arabization policy.

But Ali Mahdi, a Turkmen leader here, has his own maps. His show the city of Kirkuk at the heart of Turkmeneli: the supposed home of Iraq's ethnic Turkmen population.

The vastly different ways that Iraq's ethnic groups view this province and its capital city, Kirkuk, illustrate the deep-rooted, complex, and potentially explosive issue of its status and the ongoing debate over Iraq's internal borders. In Kirkuk, the issue was supposed to have been decided by a constitutionally mandated referendum to take place by the end of 2007. The vote is delayed until June.

In the meantime the United States is using its leverage with all sides – Kurds, Turkmen, and Arabs – to keep the situation from blowing up into an all-out war for control here as the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) works on a plan to broker a peaceful solution to the status of the province that is the home of northern Iraq's oil industry.

In addition to Kirkuk, the UNAMI plan is looking at other disputed areas spanning an arc that is almost 300 miles long and stretches from the city of Sinjar in northwest Iraq to Diyala Province in the east.

"We do put it as a very top priority of ours to deal with this issue ... now we believe that UNAMI's efforts have the best chance of getting at a stable and secure resolution to this issue," says a US diplomat in Baghdad who spoke on condition of anonymity due to embassy requirements.

According to the US diplomat and Muhammad Ihsan, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) minister on the national committee dealing with Kirkuk, UNAMI's efforts involve suggestions for resolving the fate of at least four contested areas in the hopes of leading to a greater compromise on Kirkuk Province territories on which each ethnic group has claims. Its plan is expected to be announced in mid-May.

"If you start with some of the areas that are less controversial ... you might have some processes in place that have buy-in from all the sides involved, so you have an easier way of getting at ultimate resolution on the boundaries," says the US diplomat, adding that UNAMI's proposed solutions look at how commerce and the sharing of water resources would be affected in the process of border resolution.

"We are looking for ways to compromise. Some areas are soft, some areas are hard," says Mr. Ihsan, using the terms "soft" in English to describe the areas that are overwhelmingly made up of one of the three ethnic groups and "hard" being the more mixed and contentious areas.

He says the KRG would be open to working out within the UNAMI-administered process "power-sharing formulas" in places where Kurds are present but do not make up the majority.