By Mustafa Mohammed
KIRKUK, Iraq, May 8 (Reuters) - Abdullah Jasim, a Shi’ite Arab, left his native Basra in southern Iraq more than 30 years ago in search of a better life in the oil-producing city of Kirkuk.
He opened three businesses and married off six daughters born in Kirkuk. But in the eyes of many in this northern flashpoint city at the heart of a looming ethnic row, Jasim and his family are "wafedins", or newcomers.
"Most in my family have never seen Basra," said Jasim, 67, drinking tea with friends one recent afternoon.
"No one forced us to come, but every time my sons and daughters apply for a job they are told: ‘This job is not for you. This is only for the people of Kirkuk’."
Iraq is expected to settle the final status of multi-ethnic Kirkuk in a local referendum by the end of 2007.
With Iraq’s government and Washington focused on saving Baghdad from civil war, a think-tank last month warned that ignoring Kirkuk could see conflict spread to the relatively peaceful north and even spill over the border into Turkey.
Kirkuk, an ancient city 250 km (155 miles) north of Baghdad, is claimed by ethnic Kurds, Arabs and Turkish-speaking Turkmen.
Once a melting pot of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Turkmen and Armenians, the city’s woes are a recipe for bloodshed if a peaceful solution is not found, analysts said.
Kurds see Kirkuk as their historical capital and want it included in their autonomous Kurdistan region. They want the referendum held by year-end as stated in the constitution. Arabs and Turkmen accuse Kurds of pushing them out of the city.
Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whose government includes Kurdish parties, last month agreed to give Arab families in Kirkuk $15,000 each and a piece of land if they voluntarily returned to their original towns.
Saddam Hussein expelled thousands of Kurds and Turkmen from Kirkuk and replaced them with Arabs under an Arabisation plan in the 1970s and 80s.
Arabs and Turkmen, who oppose a referendum for fear of becoming second-class citizens, said the relocation plan is a ploy to change the city’s demographics ahead of the vote.
"The referendum on Kirkuk is a red line," said Mohammed Khalil, a Sunni Arab member of Kirkuk’s Provincial Council.
"Kurds are dreaming if they want to hold a referendum, but if there is a vote all Iraqis should be allowed to participate."
DANGER FOR MALIKI
Some local Kurdish leaders have warned that if the vote is delayed, Kurds could quit Maliki’s government.
Mohammed Ihsan, the Kurdish regional minister for "disputed territories," said the referendum should go ahead as planned.
He blamed "Baathists" for causing bureaucratic obstacles that have delayed preparations for the vote, such as completing a census in Kirkuk by July 31.
"The Arabs who came here will not be forced out, but will not be allowed to vote in the referendum. They can live in peace there after the referendum," he told Reuters.
Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari, a Kurd, said he believed the constitution should be followed.
"At the end of the day I believe there will be some compromises ... but I believe the constitutional procedure should be implemented," Zebari told Reuters recently.
In negotiations ahead of the 2005 constitution, leaders from Iraq’s Shi’ite majority agreed with Kurds to include the Kirkuk referendum in exchange for language on federalism that would allow the creation of a Shi’ite "super region" in the south.
But not all Shi’ites now agree on giving Kirkuk away.
The parliamentary bloc of fiery Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has announced a campaign to delay the vote. Washington, bogged down in Baghdad, has said little publicly about the issue.
But as the deadline nears, Kurdish nationalists have stirred passions over Kirkuk in speeches and in pro-government media.
"Kurds feel it’s their chance to get Kirkuk," said Joost Hiltermann, from the International Crisis Group think tank. "They feel Bush is a lameduck president and that Washington won’t put pressure on them to let the deadline slip."
Hiltermann said Kirkuk threatened to further erode U.S. goals in Iraq and in the region.
Turkey, wary that Iraqi Kurdish nationalism could ignite its own Kurdish community, has traded barbs in the past month with Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani.
Chinqeez Morat, a Turkman, blamed Kirkuk’s woes on its oil.
"If there was no oil in Kirkuk, nobody would take care of this town," Morat said. (Additional reporting by Shamal Aqrawi in Arbil, Sherko Raouf in Sulaimaniya and Ibon Villelabeitia in Baghdad)