Northern Iraq’s disputed territories are preparing for a referendum to decide their political future.
The town of Makhmour lies amid the dust devils, wheat-fields and oil pipelines of the northern Iraqi plains, just east of the Green Line which divides the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government from the rest of Iraq.
For decades, this predominantly Kurdish town surrounded by what are now mostly Arab villages has been on the front line of ethnic tensions. These tensions have left their mark in the form of sandbagged emplacements on the turn-off from the town’s main highway and shrapnel scars on buildings caused by a car bomb in May, which killed 50 people.
By the end of this year, the town is scheduled to vote in a referendum on whether to join the Kurdistan region – a referendum some Iraqis say may lead to a new era of security and prosperity for the north, but others say could cause simmering tensions to boil over.
The first stage of the “Article 140” process – named after a section of Iraq’s constitution – will take place on July 31, when the committee in charge of implementing it finalises the lists of eligible voters. Officials overseeing the process say that after the July 31 “census”, they will organise a referendum in which the “disputed territories” of northern Iraq vote, district by district, on whether to join the Kurdistan Regional Government.
The referendum is better known outside Iraq for its association with Kirkuk, an oil-rich city that is home to Kurds, Sunni Arabs, Turcomans, Assyrian Christians and Shia Muslims. The city is part of a disputed region that forms an arc running 450km from Sinjar in the north-west corner of the country to the province of Diyala in the east.
The region is rich in oil and Saddam Hussein tried to cement his control over it by making sure its Arab population was in the majority. In towns such as Kirkuk, the regime altered the demographic balance by expelling Kurds and Turcomans and bringing in Shia settlers from the south.
In Makhmour, it took an administrative approach. According to Kurdish officials, the town was detached from the majority-Kurdish Irbil governorate in 1996 and reassigned to predominantly Arab Ninewah. “This region [Makhmour] is Kurdistan,” says Mohammed Amin Roj, head of the Kurdistan Democratic party, one of two main political movements that dominate politics in the north. Even the Arab villages, he says, have Kurdish names such as Kherabaddan, (Round Stone) or Karamerdi (Dead Donkey).
Ethnic tensions are running high, not least because of the recent car and truck bombs. Makhmour officials say the bomb in May turned out to have been assembled in a nearby Arab village.
In Makhmour’s marketplace, one young Sunni Arab, asked if he wanted to be part of Kurdistan, replies: “How would I know? I’ve never been to Kurdistan. If I tried to drive to Irbil [the Kurdistan region’s capital], they’d see ‘Arab’ on my identification and never let me in.” His friend claims that after the May bomb, Arab civil servants were attacked. “They beat and insulted government employees in the street.”
Some outsiders have urged the Kurdistan and Iraqi governments to hold off on implementing Article 140. The Brussels-based International Crisis Group suggests the process lacks legitimacy among Arabs, Turcomans and others. But Kurdish officials say they have had little luck trying to negotiate any practical compromises with their main Sunni or Turcoman opponents.
“We are talking about a constitution. It is not a menu for a restaurant,” says Mohammed Ihsan, the Kurdish member of the multi-ethnic commission overseeing Article 140. “The constitution is something fixed and you have to implement it.”
Kurdish vote stirs ethnic tensions