KIRKUK, Iraq — Even by the skewed standards of a country where millions are homeless or in exile, the squalor of the Kirkuk soccer stadium is a startling sight.
On the outskirts of a city adjoining some of Iraq’s most lucrative oil reserves, a rivulet of urine flows past the entrance to the barren playing field.
There are no spectators, only 2,200 Kurdish squatters who have converted the dugouts, stands and parking lot into a refugee city of cinder-block hovels covered in Kurdish political graffiti, some for President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
These homeless Kurds are here not for soccer but for politics. They are reluctant players in a future referendum to decide whether oil-rich Tamim Province in the north and its capital, Kirkuk, will become part of the semiautonomous Kurdish regional government or remain under administration by Baghdad.
Under the Iraqi Constitution the referendum is due before Dec. 31. But in a nation with a famously slow political clock, one of the few things on which Kirkuk’s Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen communities agree is that yet another political deadline is about to be missed.
This unstable city can ill afford much more delay and uncertainty. The fusion of oil, politics and ethnic tensions make Kirkuk one of the most potentially explosive places in the country, and its fate is seen as a crucial issue by all sides in the debate about whether Iraq will eventually be partitioned among Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs.
What rankles the stadium’s impoverished Kurds most is that while they remain in a foul-smelling limbo, on the other side of town some of the Arabs who were forcibly moved here by Saddam Hussein still live in comfortable suburbs, a legacy of the dictator’s notorious 1980s Anfal campaign to depopulate Kurdish areas and “Arabize” Tamim.
Moreover, some of the squatting Kurds complain that it is their own leaders who forced them to move to Kirkuk, to pack the city with Kurdish votes before the referendum.
Hajji Walid Muhammad, 67, a taxi driver here, grumbled that after the 2003 invasion, the Kurdish authorities told a gathering of Kirkuk-born Kurds living nearby in Chamchamal, “Even if you own a small tent you have to go back to your own homeland.”
When asked what would have happened if he had refused, Mr. Muhammad said: “By God’s name, they would cut off our food basket and not pay us our salary and give us nothing else and force us to go back. They ordered us to go back.”
Najat Jaseem Muhammad also said that the authorities “encouraged” him to leave Chamchamal, where he had lived since 1997. He said he was happy to be back in the town of his birth, but not to be living in such conditions, without enough money to escape.
“They said: ‘If you do not return, we will lose Kirkuk. You are Kurdish and Kirkuk must return to the arms of Kurdistan,’” he said, standing in front of political graffiti on a stadium pillar.
“It was not a matter of being forced, but if anyone stayed over there they would not have been supplied with anything and they would have been oppressed,” he added. “They would have stopped my work.”
In a province where the population balance has been distorted by decades of gerrymandering and forced settlement, the Iraqi Constitution spells out a three-stage process to resolve the issue. First a process of “normalization” to restore the city’s population balance to what it was before Mr. Hussein’s decrees, then a census, then the referendum.
But even that first stage is incomplete. American and international officials who have pushed for progress on the issue are conceding that the Dec. 31 date is unfeasible.
The inevitable delay frustrates the Kurds, who are confident of victory and suspect delaying tactics by opponents intent on keeping the land, and the oil.
In contrast, the delay is welcomed with ill-concealed delight by others in Kirkuk.
“I believe the main error was to set a holy date for the referendum,” said Tahsin Kahya, a Shiite Turkmen member of Kirkuk Provincial Council.
“A problem created over 35 years cannot be fixed in seven or eight months,” he added, ticking off with the ease of frequent practice the constitutional, logistic, legal, parliamentary, boundary, property and financial hurdles he believed should delay a referendum for “years, of course.”
In a volatile city where Sunni insurgent violence has been reduced significantly in recent months but not eliminated, how the Kurds react to the missed deadline will be crucial.
The issue is further complicated by Turkey’s desire to safeguard Kirkuk’s Turkmen minority and its hostility to the notion of the Kurds gaining control of Kirkuk’s oil fields. Turkey fears this could embolden the Kurds to declare their own state, thereby encouraging Kurdish separatists in northeastern Turkey.
“No Iraqi government could ‘give’ Kirkuk to the Kurds and hope to survive, in view of broad popular opposition in Arab Iraq,” said the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit organization that seeks to prevent or resolve deadly conflicts. “The Kirkuk question could, therefore, trigger total deadlock, breakdown and violent conflict, just when the Bush administration hopes its security plan for Baghdad will yield political dividends.”
All sides decline to give exact figures of their population, but the Kurds, who won 26 of 41 council seats in the last provincial elections, appear to believe they make up more than half of the province’s 1.2 million population.
“Since no statistical process has been done, if we announce any kind of number it will cause a political conflict.” said Rebwar Fa’aq al-Talabany, a Kurd who is deputy chairman of Kirkuk Provincial Council.
Mr. Talabany rejected accusations that the Kurds were forcing their own people to move.
“In Kirkuk you find deaths and explosions, so how could you persuade someone to come and live here? I myself would tell families not to come to Kirkuk, because Kirkuk’s condition is not good,” he said during an interview.
He also ruled out seizing Kirkuk by arms. “If we can’t have it with a referendum or a legal way, we are not going to use force. It will be a peaceful solution between the communities,” he said.
To restore the ethnic balance before Arabization, a compensation deal has been reached by all parties and built into Iraq’s Constitution, paying the former dictator’s Arab “Wafidin,” or newcomers, to leave the city. Each family would receive 20 million dinars, or about $16,000, and some land, on condition that they transfer their ration cards, residency papers and identification documents from Kirkuk to the cities where they move.
In suburbs of Kirkuk that were once nearly 100 percent Arab, many have already gone and others are preparing to leave, complaining of intimidation by Kurdish pesh merga fighters and unwarranted roundups by Kurdish intelligence forces.
Arab residents point to empty Arab houses with the Kurdish word “Gyrawa,” or reserved, written on the wall, ready for their new Kurdish occupants. Buildings abandoned by senior commanders from the Hussein government have “terrorist” scrawled on them in Kurdish.
Outside the provincial council offices, crowds gather daily to scrutinize lists posted high on the blast walls that contain the names of 15,000 whose relocation cases have been resolved. Some admit that they actually left the city months ago — the Shiites heading mainly south and Sunnis north or west — and now just visit Kirkuk every few days to see if they can still get the money.
As political battle lines are drawn over who controls the oil below the land and the people above it, the city has at least one consolation: Most Arabs agree there is less underlying tension here between Sunnis and Shiites because they are united against the prospect of a Kurdish Kirkuk.
As time passes, the balance of the town is changing. A short drive from where the departing Arabs peer at the lists, residents of the once-Arab suburb known as Officer District say it has been renamed Nawroz, or New Days, the Kurdish word for the New Year spring festival.
Wafaq Aziz al-Obaidi, an Air Force brigadier general under Mr. Hussein’s rule, said he and all of his neighbors had fled the district; he just returns occasionally to check his old property.
“I left the house, like thousands of Arabs have done, to protect myself from the hatred and aggression of the pesh merga, who are so aggressive against Arabs,” he said. “I went back to Kirkuk 20 days later and found my house had been seized, all my furniture stolen, and there was Kurdish writing in my house. Later on guards wearing Kurdish uniforms came to me and told me, ‘Save yourself and leave the house immediately,’ so I was forced to leave it.”
In his office in the provincial council, Mr. Talabany pointed to the compensation package and said the Arab exodus was “voluntary, not enforced.”
Yet the strength of Kurdish sentiment about their entitlement is as strong in the council’s air-conditioned offices as it is in the soccer stadium.
“The Kurdish people have seen genocide, Arabization and Baathism in Kirkuk, and they have had all their property taken away,” Mr. Talabany said, with feeling. “All these are the rights of Kurds. The Arabic people have not had such troubles, and if the Turkmen have, they have had less of it.” He added that in his family alone, 19 people had been killed by Mr. Hussein’s government.
“All these rights must be given back to them, and this process is called normalization,” he said. “When normalization has happened, let Kirkuk be added to Sudan — I have no problem with that. But let the people decide.”