Iraqi population census raises concerns of Kurds

Kurds and Turkmens in Kirkuk are concerned that the Iraqi population census, set to be held in 2020, could be used for political ends.

al-monitor Kurdish supporters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan celebrate after the closing of ballot boxes during the parliamentary elections in Kirkuk, Iraq, May 12, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Ako Rasheed.

Sep 12, 2019

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraqi Kurdistan — Political concerns among Kurds and Turkmens in Iraq may impede the country's census, set to be held by late 2020, especially in the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

Iraq's last population census in 1997 put the country's population at 16 million, excluding Iraqi Kurdistan. It was estimated there were 3 million Kurds. Those figures are now out of date, and the real population unknown.

The Kurdish political parties in Kirkuk, except for the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), met Aug. 26 to reject holding a census in the disputed areas, citing Article 140 of the constitution.

Iraqi troops took control of Kirkuk in October 2017 following the failed Kurdish referendum for independence. Since then, the KDP has deemed Kirkuk an “occupied” city, withdrawing its officials and headquarters.

Article 140 of Iraq's constitution states that the fate of Kirkuk and other areas disputed by Baghdad and Erbil should be settled through certain stages of normalization, including a census and a referendum on whether to remain under the control of the Iraqi federal government or the Kurdistan region.

Rebaz Sabir, head of the Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG) in Kirkuk, told Al-Monitor that Article 140 "should be implemented. Kirkuk’s situation should be normalized, and any census should be conducted within the framework of Article 140. Kurds see the population census in Kirkuk as a tool for disregarding the rights of Kurds.”

The Turkmens in Kirkuk also have concerns about the Iraqi census.

“In the current conditions that we live in in Iraq and Kirkuk, we have fears that the general population census would be used for political purposes by some political sides,” Ali Mahdi, Turkmen member in the Kirkuk Provincial Council, told Al-Monitor. “There are demographic changes in some Iraqi provinces, including Kirkuk, therefore we think the general census cannot be held in a normal and fair way to fit all the provinces.”

Abdul al-Zahra al-Hindawi, the spokesman of the Iraqi Planning Ministry, told Al-Monitor, “Concerning the Kirkuk issue, I think it is being resolved according to Article 140. Frankly speaking, the purpose and the procedure of the Iraqi general population census are quite different from Article 140 and its measures for dealing with the Kirkuk issue.”

He added, “The purpose of the general census is developmental. We aim to build comprehensive and accurate figures about the reality of life and population in Iraq built on strong scientific foundations. Accordingly, the figures will help us in calculating long-term developmental plans.”

The census will be carried out electronically, he said, via tablets linked to secure internet lines.

“In the current situation, the census cannot be done in Kirkuk, since demographic changes and Arabization policies were implemented during the reign of the ousted Baath regime,” Khalid Shwani, member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan leadership committee, told Al-Monitor. “Following the war against the Islamic State, many Arab internally displaced persons from other Iraqi provinces flocked to Kirkuk, thus, the current reality, as per Kirkuk’s components, are not real figures.”

Rebwar Karim Mahmood, a Kurdish lawmaker in the Iraqi parliament, told Al-Monitor, “Holding the census by late 2020 is in favor of some Iraqi political sides.”

“The census, in general, is an important issue for rebuilding Iraq, but due to the country’s multi-nation and multi-ethnic reality, the census never remains a technical subject. Therefore it is a purely political issue,” he said.

Kirkuk’s Kurds and Turkmens also have concerns regarding provincial elections, scheduled for April 2020. The elections will take place across Iraq, including in Kirkuk, which has not held a provincial election since 2005. 

The Iraqi parliament amended the provincial election law in July. Consequently, Kirkuk’s voter registration is based on food ration cards and Iraqi civil status identification cards. Kurds and Turkmens who have transferred their documents to other cities, as a result of the Arabization policy by the former Baath regime, cannot register their names to participate in the election.

Rebaz Sabir, with the KIG, said the Kurdish political parties rejected the law and brought a lawsuit to the Iraqi Federal Court to eliminate the amendment. The parties also asked Iraqi President Barham Salih, a Kurd, to not pass the law. The Kurdistan region parliament announced Sept. 4 that it would formally ask the Iraqi federal court to review the law.

Al-Monitor contacted Safin Dizayee, the head of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Foreign Relations Office, but he was not immediately available for comment.

Bilal Wahab, Wagner fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Al-Monitor that the census is a must for developing Iraq’s oil-based rentier economy. He said the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) should not fear the census over budgetary concerns and that the census will help both Baghdad and Erbil achieve a “stable budget transfer formula.”

“As for Kirkuk, the census would fulfill a long-ignored requirement of Article 140 of Iraq's Constitution. As events before and after the KRG independence referendum showcase, Kirkuk's conflict is increasingly less over population and more over politics and oil,” Wahab said. “With accurate data and a reengaged [United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq], the census may breathe life back into Article 140 and a peaceful resolution to the status of Kirkuk and other disputed provinces.”

While politics may be influencing both Iraq and the Kurdistan region in the upcoming population census, both sides may realize that the policy planning benefits of reliable census data outweigh politics.

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