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Last Updated: Friday, 23 May, 2003, 19:26 GMT 20:26 UK
Ethnic tensions mar Kirkuk poll
By Barbara Plett
In Kirkuk, northern Iraq

A man watches television on a Kirkuk street
Ethnic groups will have to work together

It used to be an office complex used by Saddam Hussein's feared intelligence agents, now it's a makeshift home for Kurdish refugees.

Abandoned rooms that once reportedly witnessed scenes of torture have been turned into cramped living quarters, their dusky interiors barely visible from the rubbish strewn courtyard.

Tens of thousands of Kurds were forced out of the northern Iraqi town of Kirkuk in the 1980s. They're returning now to find their houses demolished or owned by Arabs.

Resettling them will be one of the most explosive issues facing Kirkuk's new city council. Leading citizens are set to select one on Saturday, an exercise the coalition forces are calling a step towards democracy.

Refugees with a bitter past and uncertain future don't have a lot of confidence the council will be up to the job.

"There are many differences between political parties, and they have not united their manner of ruling," said one, "so we're afraid that a new political conflict is going to be raised."

Limited elections

Kirkuk certainly has a history of political conflict.

Saddam Hussein strengthened his grip on this important oil town by bringing in loyal Arab immigrants and expelling not only Kurds but many Turkmens and Assyrians, a policy of ethnic cleansing that displaced more than 100,000 people.

Now all the ethnic groups have to work together.

The American solution is a local council with the same number of representatives from each.

"As Arabs this will not satisfy us," says delegate Sheikh Naif al Juburi, "but we accept to have the same representatives as the minor nationalities, and democratic elections will give us the number of representatives in the future as the majority in this city."

What's planned now is limited elections for an interim arrangement.

Delegates will select 24 deputies, who will choose a mayor.

The Americans will appoint six independents, and have the last word on any council decisions.

"They are now just beginning to understand what a democratic process is, so I think they do need some guidelines," says Major General Raymond Odierno, the US commander in charge of Northeast Iraq.

"We have to help them work through that process, but we want them to participate, to determine their own fate, so it's not a heavy handed guidance, it's a work with them to make sure they're on the right track."

Ultimately the resettlement policy will be decided at the national level, the council will only be able to make recommendations.

This could take a long time.

Meanwhile American guidance may come up against Kurdish political aspirations.

Kirkuk is central to Kurdish plans for some form of self determination, so it's in their interest to make sure they become the majority again.

Armed gangs

The tensions have already led to violence.

Local officials say more than ten people were killed in Arab-Kurdish clashes over the past week.

And in the dusty farming village of Alaw Mahmoud just west of the city, some Kurds are not waiting for a legally sanctioned process.

"We love our homeland," says Fahima Ahmed, a poverty stricken mother of 11.

"We've lost our homes, our lands, and we have been dismissed violently, so we have a right to come back after liberation."

She's been able to peacefully negotiate an arrangement with the Arabs who took over her village, but others are less so inclined.

Wealthy Arab immigrant Abbas Khadr Mohammed says he's been visited by armed gangs from Kurdish cities further north preparing the ground for their return.

"They threatened me and came several times," he says, "and gave me only one week to leave these lands.

"I told them that it is impossible to move during one week and we have our rights."

He takes refuge behind his heavy gate.

But the Americans may find it more difficult to shut out potential power struggles, between Arabs who want to keep what they gained under Saddam Hussein, and Kurds who want to entrench themselves for future gains.

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