The elections in Iraq on March 7, 2010, are likely to serve as an important indicator of the prospects for a resolution of the long-running dispute over the administration of the ethnically mixed and resource-rich province of Kirkuk in the north of the country.
The Iraqi Kurds have repeatedly called for Kirkuk to be transferred to the control of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which already administers three provinces in the predominantly Kurdish north of Iraq. The other ethnic groups in Iraq - including the Arab-dominated government in Baghdad - are equally insistent that Kirkuk should remain under central control and that any oil or gas revenues should be divided between the entire population of the country rather than all going to the KRG.
The failure to resolve the issue of the eventual status of Kirkuk threatens not only prospects for permanent political stability in Iraq but also hopes of extracting the province's huge reserves and building new oil and gas pipelines from Kirkuk to Turkey, and from there to energy-hungry Western markets.
"We are very interested in the oil and gas reserves in Kirkuk. Who wouldn't be?" said one executive from a leading European energy company. "We would like to invest in the region, perhaps even become involved in building one of the pipelines. But we can't do anything unless this issue is resolved. At the moment, the risk of political instability is just too great."
The Iraqi Kurds have long maintained that, historically, Kirkuk is a Kurdish province but that it was subjected to a process of Arabization under former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who deported a significant proportion of its indigenous Kurds and replaced them with ethnic Arabs. No one doubts that such a campaign was launched, although the scale of the deportations is hotly disputed.
Since the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, the KRG has assumed de facto control of education and security in Kirkuk. Other ethnic groups have accused the KRG of resettling hundreds of thousands of ethnic Kurds in the province, including not only those who were originally from Kirkuk but also a large number of Kurds from other areas. They claim that the KRG's ultimate aim is to change the demographic balance in the province in the run-up to a constitutionally required - but long overdue - referendum on the status of Kirkuk. They fear that, if a referendum results in a vote for union with the KRG, the Iraqi Kurds will attempt to use the revenue from the province's oil and gas reserves as the economic foundations for their long-held dream of an independent Kurdish state. It is a prospect which alarms not only the Iraqi government in Baghdad but also several of the country's neighbors. Syria, Iran and - particularly - Turkey all worry that the creation of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq will further fuel secessionist tendencies amongst their own already restive Kurdish minorities.
The evidence on the ground in Kirkuk suggests that there is some truth to the allegations of demographic manipulation. In September 2009, local officials in Kirkuk estimated that the population of the province stood at 1.4 million, up from 850,000 at the time of the US invasion in March 2003. More significantly, the voter registry in Kirkuk has increased from 400,000 in 2004 to 900,000 for the March 7 elections. A dispute between Kurds and other ethnic groups over how many seats to allocate to Kirkuk to accommodate this huge increase in voters resulted in the entire election being put back two months after originally being scheduled for January 2010.
Although a compromise was eventually agreed, the real test is likely to come after the election itself. As happened at the last Iraqi general election, the two main Kurdish parties - the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) - are running on a joint ticket, the so-called Kurdistani Alliance, together with five minor parties. However, this time they will face a challenge from a new party called "Goran" (meaning "Change"), which is dominated by former members of the PUK who had become exasperated by the widespread corruption and misuse of resources in the three provinces under the KRG's control.
In the July 2009 elections for the KRG, Goran picked up 23.5 percent of the vote. It is also expected to perform well in Kirkuk on March 7, 2010. But Goran has already declared that, however much it may be opposed to the KDP/PUK in other areas, it is in complete agreement with them on iconic issues such as the transfer or Kirkuk to KRG control. As a result, the predominance of ethnic Kurds in Kirkuk means that the main hope for those opposed to the transfer of Kirkuk to the KRG is that voters break with the pattern of previous elections in Iraq and vote across ethnic lines. If the Kurdish parties fail to win an overwhelming majority in the province, then it will be much more difficult for them to push for the inclusion of Kirkuk in the territory administered by the KRG and they may be more prepared to reach a compromise with other ethnic groups on the division of revenue from Kirkuk's oil and gas. But, for the moment at least, the signs are that the Kurds of Kirkuk will again vote along ethnic lines - which is likely to encourage the Iraq Kurds to renew their calls for a referendum and the eventual transfer of both the province and its oil and gas to the KRG.
Even if the Kurdish parties sweep Kirkuk, there is still no indication that any of the other ethnic groups in Iraq or the central government in Baghdad is prepared to allow the KRG to take over Kirkuk. Consequently, the most likely outcome of the March 7 general election in Kirkuk appears to be an increase in political tensions; and, as long as the standoff remains unresolved, energy companies are likely to continue to be reluctant to make substantial investments in extracting the province's hydrocarbons and transferring them to Western markets.