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Threats, tension in Kirkuk as Iraq census delayed

KIRKUK, Iraq (Reuters) - Abu Mohammed, an Arab, moved to the Iraqi oil city of Kirkuk four years ago to escape rising violence in neighbouring Diyala province. Recently, he says, he was ordered by Kurds to get out.

“They were armed. They told me: ‘You have 48 hours to leave Kirkuk. Otherwise don’t blame anyone but yourself for what will happen to you,’” said Abu Mohammed, who asked that his real name not be used.

Turf battles and tensions between Arabs and Kurds are resurfacing in oil-rich Kirkuk as Iraq’s central government delays a national census that was supposed to help resolve long-standing disputes in restive areas of northern Iraq.

U.S. military officials consider Arab-Kurd tensions a potential flashpoint for a future conflict in Iraq, still suffering deep wounds from the sectarian warfare unleashed by the 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.

Some Arab families say they are being ordered to leave before the census, Iraq’s first full population count in more than two decades. The threats are vaguely blamed on Kurdish armed groups.

The census is critical to the future of Iraq’s disputed territories, which Baghdad wants to keep and the Kurds want to fold into their semi-autonomous northern enclave.

The centerpiece of the dispute is Kirkuk, a volatile ethnic stew of Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and others. U.S. officials say the province may sit atop 4 percent of the world’s oil reserves.

“We have received dozens of claims from Arab families talking about gunmen storming their houses and ordering them to leave the province and go back to their original provinces, otherwise they will suffer bad consequences,” said Rakan Sayied, an Arab who serves as a deputy governor of Kirkuk.

“Leaflets were distributed recently in Arab neighbourhoods in the province carrying the signature of the ‘Revolutionary Youth’, threatening people if they don’t leave Kirkuk,” he said.

Locals said they had never heard of Revolutionary Youth, nor another group named on some leaflets, “Original Sons of Kirkuk”.

DOMINANT KURDS?

The census was expected to determine if Kurds are the dominant ethnicity, which would enhance their claim to Kirkuk and its oil riches.

But last week Baghdad delayed the count, which had been set for Oct. 24, until Dec. 5. The government said it wanted to give Kirkuk and Nineveh provinces time to settle their differences.

A referendum on Kirkuk’s status was supposed to have been held no later than December 2007 but was shelved after Arabs and Turkmen accused Kurds of flooding the city with their kin. Kurds had similarly accused Saddam of “Arabising” the province by encouraging Arabs to move to Kirkuk in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

The renewed tensions in northern Iraq come amid political uncertainly after a March election that offered no clear winner.

The protracted brawl over a new government has cast Kurds as kingmakers, with their lawmakers pressing Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to meet their demands in exchange for Kurdish support.

Some Kirkuk Arabs suggest the threats come from Kurdish security forces -- the peshmerga (army) or the ashaees (police).

Colonel Salar Khalid, a police official, said the accusations were baseless.

“The ashaees aim to preserve security in Kirkuk. Our duty is to chase terrorists and armed groups, those who destabilise security in Kirkuk. We don’t force people to leave Kirkuk.”

Repwar Talabani, the deputy head of the provincial council, also denied that security forces were involved.

“There is no doubt that what is happening in Kirkuk and the threat that some Arab families received is made by hidden hands who want to provoke sedition in the province and delay the count,” said Talabani, a Kurd.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s two main political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, headed by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by regional President Masoud Barzani, issued a joint statement last week criticising Baghdad for neglecting a solution for Kirkuk’s conflicts.

They said the repeated postponement of the census was “opening the way for the enemies of Iraq”.

“Those who know they will lose when the count happens and those who are afraid of disclosing the actual facts of Kirkuk’s entities are hindering the census under various pretexts,” Repwar Talabani said.

Additional reporting and writing by Waleed Ibrahim; Editing by Jim Loney and Mark Trevelyan

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