November 30, 2010 / 4:41 PM / 9 years ago

Iraq delays first census since 1987 over land row

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s cabinet decided on Tuesday to postpone again the nation’s first full census in more than two decades as it struggles to end a longstanding dispute between majority Arabs and minority Kurds over land and oil.

No new date was set for the census, which is keenly awaited because it will answer questions important to the future of northern oilfields — areas in Kirkuk and Nineveh provinces disputed by Arabs and Kurds.

The count had been scheduled for December 5, after being delayed from October 24.

Environment Minister Nermeen Othman, who attended a meeting where the cabinet decided on the postponement, said a new date would be set in coming days after a meeting between Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and officials from Nineveh and Kirkuk.

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

Iraq had already postponed plans to hold a census when the country was at the peak of sectarian violence in 2007.

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 have said the province sits atop 4 percent of the world’s oil reserves.

Hussein Ali al-Salih, the head of Kirkuk’s Arab Unity bloc, called the postponement a “blessed step” supported by Arabs across the northern region.

“It satisfies the ambitions of the political blocs in Kirkuk especially,” he said. “It came at the right time, and saved Iraq from a crisis if the census had happened at the scheduled time.”

Rebwar Talabani, the Kurdish deputy head of the Kirkuk provincial council, said postponing the census for technical reasons would make sense but cautioned against politically motivated delays.

“Delaying the census doesn’t solve the problems. The important thing is transparency between the political blocs in Iraq,” he said. “Solving the problems is better than delaying them.”

Additional reporting by Mustafa Mahmoud in Kirkuk, editing by Jim Loney and Ralph Boulton

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