Ethnic tension stalls first Iraq census in 22 years

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq has abandoned plans to hold its first census in two decades this year because of fears the survey could inflame tensions in northern areas disputed by Arabs and Kurds, officials said on Sunday.

The census planned for October was expected to map Iraq’s ethnic make-up after six years of war triggered by the 2003 U.S. invasion. The survey was seen as likely to either encourage reconciliation or fan the feuds threatening Iraq’s stability.

It was to be the first census to include Kurdish areas in Iraq’s north since 1987 and would have involved a quarter of a million teachers fanning out across the country to seek data on Iraq’s diverse population.

Planning Minister Ali Baban said his ministry was ready from a “technical standpoint” to conduct the census.

“But after hearing the fears, concerns and reservations of political groups in Kirkuk and Nineveh, we decided to slow down the process and the census has been postponed indefinitely,” he told reporters in the Shi’ite Muslim holy city of Najaf.

Mehdi al-Alak, who heads Iraq’s Central Organization for Statistics and Information Technology (COSIT), said the agency had proposed delaying the census until either April or October 2010. The cabinet would decide which date was best, he said.

Ethnic Kurds claim the northern city of Kirkuk and the vast oil fields it sits over as their ancestral capital and want it incorporated into their semi-autonomous northern enclave, a move fiercely opposed by the city’s Turkmen and Arabs.

Ousted dictator Saddam Hussein enticed thousands of Arabs from Iraq’s south to relocate to Kirkuk in order to dilute the Kurdish influence there. Since his fall, Arab and Turkmen leaders say the Kurdish authorities have reversed the process by sending thousands of Kurds to settle in Kirkuk.

The northern province of Nineveh is likewise dotted with areas claimed by Kurds.

The census would have shed light on the actual ethnic composition of those areas. Many Arab and Turkmen leaders in Kirkuk opposed the survey there, and have also opposed holding a referendum on the city’s fate.

Reporting by Aseel Kami in Baghdad and a reporter in Najaf; Editing by Michael Christie