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Analysis: Kirkuk faultline

Woman injured in Kirkuk bombing - 11 December 2008
Ethnic tensions and a dispute over control of oil fuel the violence in Kirkuk

By Humphrey Hawksley
BBC News, Baghdad

The suicide bomb attack on an upmarket Kurdish restaurant near Kirkuk underscores the tension still wracking the ethnically-mixed and oil-rich province in northern Iraq.

While violence in most of Iraq is down by up to 80%, Kirkuk remains restless.

It is the centre of northern Iraq's oil industry yet no workable agreement has yet emerged as to how the wealth should be shared.

The popular restaurant commanding stunning views from a hill top just north of Kirkuk was packed at the time of the attack.

Kurdish and Arab leaders, attempting to find some lasting reconciliation between the communities, were reportedly having lunch there at the time.

Some are among the casualties, together with women and children from families celebrating the Eid al-Adha festival.

Arabisation programme

Much of the political tension between the Kurds and Arabs stems from an Iraqi-government programme of the 1970s - under Saddam Hussein - that moved thousands of Arab families to the province and expelled Kurdish and other ethnic groupings from their homes.

Map of Iraq

Known as the "Arabisation of Kirkuk", the aim was to ensure Arab control of the oil fields that were first discovered in the 1920s and are connected by pipelines to Mediterranean ports.

It is this issue, together with historical grievances, that is still being played out today.

Iraqi Kurds believe they should control the city because of the demographic distortion caused by Saddam's Arabisation, and therefore retain much say over the oil.

But the ethnic Arabs, together with the Turkmen community, maintain the oil should be a national and not a regional resource. Therefore, they say, Kirkuk should remain outside the Kurdish semi-autonomous area and under control of the central government.

Referendum plan

There had been plans for a referendum on the issue, but steps to prepare for it have not yet materialised.

Arab families who had been moved there under Saddam Hussein were to go back to their original home areas, after which a census would be carried out and then a referendum.

While that remains pending, Kirkuk - together with the three Kurdish-controlled provinces - has been excluded from provincial elections due to be held in January.

During the years since the US-led invasion of Iraq the Kurdish provinces have been relatively peaceful.

But many Kurds believe Kirkuk is their historical capital, with ruins in the area dating back some 5,000 years.

In Iraq, where history and past grievances plays such a key and often violent part in political negotiations, Kirkuk remains a fault-line that will have to be dealt with substantively in the very near future.

With fragile reconciliation beginning in much of the country, the die-hard remnants of the suicide bombing insurgency are looking for new issues and targets for their violence.



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