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Kurds delay vote on status of oil center

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD -- Kurdish lawmakers agreed yesterday to a six-month delay in a referendum on whether the oil-rich city of Kirkuk should join the semiautonomous region of Kurdistan or remain under Iraqi central government control.

The delay had been expected because of problems in arranging logistics for the vote, which was supposed to have been held by the end of the year. A census to determine who would be eligible to vote, for instance, has not yet been done.

But by putting off the issue, the lawmakers highlighted what has become a constant in Iraq: the inability of leaders to settle disputes whose resolution are considered key to ending ethnic and sectarian strife.

Another major issue, the rewriting of the Iraqi constitution, also is unlikely to be completed by a Monday deadline. The head of the Iraqi parliament's constitutional review committee, Humam Hamoudi, said yesterday that he would request a three-month delay. That would mark the fourth time the target date for revision of the document, approved in a referendum in 2005, has been put off.

The delay in the constitutional revision could hinder progress on other issues that the U.S. has cited as keys to Iraqi national reconciliation. Those include legislation to manage Iraq's oil industry, and the scheduling of provincial elections to ensure better distribution of power among Shiite Muslims and Sunnis across the country. Both issues are tied to constitutional revisions that would spell out the powers of regional governments to manage oil and other resources; and establish what power provinces will have to manage their own affairs.

U.S. officials worry that without political progress, recent security gains will not be sustained.

Of the 111 lawmakers in the Kurdistan regional parliament, 94 voted in favor of postponing the Kirkuk referendum.

Sardar Harki, a member of parliament in Irbil, the Kurdistan capital, said the Iraqi government as well as Kurdistan leaders "should exert more efforts ... to get this issue over and done with."

A parliament member who opposed the delay, Ghafour Makhmouri, said he does not trust the Iraqi government to organize the referendum "in six months, nor in the future."

Makhmouri called on the Kurdistan regional government to draft a bill that would allow it to claim Kirkuk and other areas seized during Saddam Hussein's anti-Kurdish campaigns.

The city was subject to upheaval under Hussein as he drove out Kurds and other ethnic minorities and replaced them with Arabs. Kurdish officials say nearly 60,000 Arabs have left the region since Hussein's ouster, and they are confident that a referendum on Kirkuk joining Kurdistan would pass.

But many non-Kurds oppose the referendum, saying it would put Kirkuk's oil into Kurdish hands and make non-Kurds in the region second-class citizens.

Tina Susman and Asso Ahmed write for the Los Angeles Times.

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