Iraq's election wild card: Kirkuk

As Iraq's Jan. 30 election nears, Kurds threaten a boycott unless the return of the city becomes an option.

Six months ago, Asso Hama Amin went to the official government storefront for picking up UN food rations and switched his registration card - which determines where he can vote - from Sulaymaniyah to Kirkuk, the city where he was born.

There's just one problem: Mr. Amin lives in Sulaymaniyah, a white- knuckled, hourlong drive and world apart from Kirkuk.

In the months leading up to Iraq's Jan. 30 elections, thousands of Kurds originally from Kirkuk have virtually "moved" back here by switching their registration cards from the places where they actually live.

Some hope to eventually return or to get money and land from Kurdish political parties; others see this as a way to move a large influential Sunni voting block to Kirkuk, a symbol for Kurds who were brutally expelled from this city by Saddam Hussein decades ago. They hope to use this mass registration as new clout to force the return of Kirkuk to Kurdistan and make it their homeland once again.

Kirkuk, the oil-rich city that Saddam Hussein "Arabized" through forced migration, is on the Iraqi side of the line separating the Kurdistan Regional Government from the rest of Iraq.

"This is our city," says Samar Sittar, a 24-year-old college student who lives and studies in Baghdad but plans to vote in Kirkuk. "We have to vote in our city, not in any other. It is a political issue, not a matter of numbers. This is our homeland." But while Kirkuk is a nice place to vote, he wouldn't want to live there. At least not yet. In Kirkuk, most of the 7,000 or so Kurds have returned to live in tents with no hot water or heat, with winter approaching.

The Kurdish vote will be crucial in the upcoming elections - they may well be the only Sunnis voting - and Kurdish leaders are seizing the political moment: They're putting pressure on interim prime minister Iyad Allawi to reopen the explosive issue of rejoining Kirkuk to Kurdistan.

"Allawi doesn't have that much support compared to the Shiite religious groups," says Asos Hardi, editor in chief of the independent Kurdish newspaper ITALHawlati.

"It's hard to imagine that he would get many votes in the Shiite population, and I don't think the Sunni Arabs will vote for him. So I believe that he does need the Kurdish votes," he says.

The two main Kurdish political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, announced their demand on Sunday: postpone the election in Kirkuk Province until "normalization" - until the city's original ethnic makeup is restored - and then hold a referendum on the fate of Kirkuk.

If the Kirkuk elections are not postponed, say some Kurdish leaders, Kurds will boycott the entire national elections. "It will be postponed, I am certain," says Hasib Rozbayani, Kirkuk's director of resettlement for returning Kurds. "We have asked the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and the Baghdad government. I am very optimistic."

And if not? "We will boycott. Peacefully, of course," he says.

Election officials reject the call for a delay - or a boycott - in Kirkuk's local election. "They can do as they please, but the elections will go ahead on January 30," says Farid Ayar, spokesman for Iraq's independent electoral commission.

The idea is to delay the election for Kirkuk's provincial council alone until Mr. Hussein's ethnic cleansing can be reversed - "whether it takes two months, one year, or any amount of time," says Ramazan Rashed, deputy director of the PUK's Kirkuk office.

Throughout the Kurdish neighborhoods of Kirkuk, a picture hangs at checkpoints, in offices, and even illuminated on the sides of buildings: a portly politician waving a piece paper at a table full of other bureaucrats. It's "Uncle Jalal" - PUK head Jalal Talabani - waving an Ottoman-era map of Iraq at the Iraqi Governing Council and declaring that Kirkuk has always been part of Kurdistan.

"Kirkuk is a historic issue for Kurdish leaders," says Hiwa Osman, a Kurdish political analyst. "Throughout recent Kurdish history, Kurdish leaders have never been able to get Kirkuk. They had Sulaymaniyah, Arbil, Dohuk, since 1963, but the contentious issue has always been Kirkuk - all the wars, all the negotiations, the failures of the negotiations, have always been over Kirkuk. So it will be extremely difficult for them to turn around and say 'we couldn't get Kirkuk.' "

In the dusty, sprawling Barudkhana neighborhood of Kirkuk, everybody is building: gigantic trucks groaning with cement, bricks, and plaster lumber down narrow streets that are little more than channels of mud and stones. Giant, vulgar mansions, in the concrete Ottoman vernacular of Baghdad's nouveau riche, belong to wealthy Kurds who fared well in the capital after leaving Kirkuk. Those who didn't find fortunes are putting up smaller, humbler brick-and-clay bungalows; some, abandoned half-built when the owner's money ran out, announce "House for Sale" in carefully scrawled graffiti.

All these houses belong to Kurds. But life is hard for the few who actually live here. Behind a row of humble houses, Sazgar Mahmoud's children play in a steaming pond of sewage. Mrs. Mahmoud, a voluble matriarch, beams at her six sons and daughters with pride.

The Mahmouds are living as refugees in their own city. The neighborhood has no services yet, so they siphon water from a nearby hospital and wire to local electrical poles. "Even the house belongs to others, not us," says Mahmoud sadly. "They are letting us stay here as charity."

Outside town, about 7,000 Kurds live in tents, waiting to see if they will get houses and land as reparations for their expulsion. Mr. Rozbayani, an unrepentant advocate of removing almost all Arabs from Kirkuk, has been bringing them water and food from the budget of the governorate. But it is not enough; he wants money from Baghdad's central government.

"Kirkuk, underground, is full of oil," says Rozbayani. "But above ground, it is the poorest city in Iraq ... compared to the resources that we have."

Amin hopes to move back to Kirkuk someday, when the situation is better. For now, he drives to the city and back to get his monthly food rations. The little portions of food are worth about 10 dollars; his monthly taxi ride to Kirkuk and back, along a road littered with land mines, wrecked cars, and carcasses of wild dogs, costs about $7. It's barely worth it.

"When the city was freed, they promised us that we would get land and food in Kirkuk if we went back there," says Amin.

"The food agents told us that if we went back to Kirkuk, we would get a piece of land and some money. They said we could get about $3000, with a piece of land," he says.

His wealthier brother Dilshad, who makes more money clearing land mines from outside Kirkuk, snorts cynically. "We've heard many, many promises from these guys, so we don't believe them anymore," he says, puffing dismissively on his cigarette.

"I didn't believe that I would get these things," says Amin glumly, "but I was hoping. So I went."

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