Iraq’s Overdue Census

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Ian Siperco

Head of Practice, Middle East and North Africa, Riskline Political and Security Risk Analysis

October 2009 was meant to be a pivotal month for Iraq. Hard-won security gains appeared at last to have created enough political breathing room to allow for a long-delayed population count. It was to be the first nationwide census to include the self-ruled northern Kurdish region since 1987, and thus carried important implications for decisions over the fate of Kirkuk, the prized oil capital of the north and one of the linchpins for long-term stability. 

Many lawmakers had called for the census to be postponed, arguing that after six years of war and radical changes in ethnic distribution, any survey was likely to further entrench divisions that threaten Iraq’s stability. The Iraqi government finally agreed, announcing in mid-August that it had abandoned plans for the nationwide census to allow time for ethnic and political tensions in contested northern areas to settle down. A rescheduled date for a census is on the calendar for October 24, 2010, but the date is subject to ratification by Iraq’s cabinet and will likely face a boycott by Turkmen and Arabs in Kirkuk – both minorities in the region. 

It appears then that Iraqi lawmakers are again facing a familiar impasse. There can be no referendum on the city’s status until Iraqis discern who is eligible to vote in Kirkuk, a process that requires a population count. At stake is political control of Iraq’s northern oil field and 40 percent of the country’s proven oil reserves. 

The last reliable estimates from a 1957 census gave Turkmen a plurality in the city and Kurds a plurality in the surrounding district, with Arabs second in the countryside and third in the city. Largely artificial demographic shifts during the time that has passed are estimated to have redistributed ethnic populations such that Kurds now constitute a majority of at least 52 percent in the city, with Arabs and Turkmen both making up sizable minorities (an estimated 35 percent and 12 percent respectively). Because no one can today deny that Kurds make up the majority of the population of Kirkuk, ethnic minority groups will persist with efforts to sabotage any census that carries implications for a future power-sharing arrangement. 

Both Arab and Turkmen ethnic groups seek a formula that would guarantee an equal split in political clout. Kurds, for their part, have been largely unwilling to consider any proposals that could threaten their control of the city council and parliament seats in the area. Their intransigence is rooted in a historic claim to the city of Kirkuk as an ancestral capital, a claim used by Kurdish authorities to justify demands for the city’s incorporation into their semi-autonomous northern enclave. Since the 2003 invasion, Arab and Turkmen leaders say Kurdish authorities have actively sought to reverse a Hussein-era Arabization process by sending thousands of Kurds to settle in Kirkuk. This resettlement policy was facilitated by the power vacuum left in the wake of the collapse of the Iraqi army. As Kurdish peshmerga troops rushed to establish regional dominance, local Arabs were left to either revolt or peacefully accept their fate. Turkmen meanwhile appealed to powerful patrons in Turkey, who came to their aid in an attempt to forestall a Kurdish political coup in Kirkuk, a city that supplies much of Turkey’s oil. 

Given Kirkuk’s combustible combination of historical injustice and contemporary relevance, the need for a power-sharing deal is obvious. The path to achieving consensus on such an arrangement is far less apparent. Chastened by the impact of inaction on oil investment and political dealmaking at the national level, the power structure in Iraq is no doubt in the process of evaluating negotiated solutions to the crisis. While no major developments are expected before crucial January legislative elections, the indefinite delays that have characterized negotiations on the topic cannot persist for much longer. And if an increasingly agitated 140 demarcation line (separating the Kurdish north from the rest of Iraq) is not enough to motivate action, perhaps the prospect of providing Arab insurgents with a perpetual casus belli will be.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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