The census is postponed yet again

Once again, Iraq’s population census has been postponed - and this time with the agreement of all political parties. It had been scheduled to take place on 5 December, and no new date has been set yet.

Iraqi law stipulates that a population census should be held every 10 years. The most recent one took place in 1997, but it excluded the three Kurdish provinces of Erbil, Sulaimaniyah and Dahuk, which at the time enjoyed self-rule. Nor did it specify the ethnic and religious identity of the people.

The 1997 census put the population at 19 million, with an estimated 3 million people living in the Kurdish region. Today, the UN estimates Iraq’s population at nearly 30 million.

The subsequent 2007 census was postponed for two years because of security fears, and in 2009 it was postponed again, because of disagreements between the various political factions.

At the heart of the dispute, and the main reason for the delay, is the Kurdish demand to include in the census form a question relating to ethnic origin. This is particularly significant in the city of Kirkuk, where the three ethnic groups - the Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen - disagree over the city’s status.

Since the 1970's, Kirkuk has seen changes in its administrative borders and demography. The Saddam Hussein’s regime annexed a number of areas to neighbouring provinces. It also ran an extensive campaign to evacuate Kurdish families and resettle Arab families in their place. The Kurds believe that it is their right to return to Kirkuk and correct this demographic imbalance.

For their part, the Arabs and Turkmen claim that there are hundreds of thousands of Kurdish citizens who came to Kirkuk under the pretext of being "deportees" after the 2003 Iraq war. They say that the census would give legitimacy to their presence in the city and could lead to Kurdish dominance in Kirkuk.

Instead they are demanding the implementation of previous resolutions relating to the city, most notably the formation of a truth commission on demographic changes introduced by the Kurds in the "disputed" areas since 2003.

Jassim Muhammad Jaafar, Minister of Youth and Sports, and a leading member of Prime Minister Maliki's coalition, represented the Turkmen in meetings about the census. He says he would accept the census, “if it were purely for scientific or developmental purposes. But we refuse to include a question about ethnic origin because it might lead to preferential treatment of one ethnic identity at the expense of others.”

But the Kurdish MP, Mahmoud Othman, says "those who refuse to add this question are afraid that the census results will reveal that they are a minority in the disputed areas."

Thaer al-Miqdadi, a university professor and a researcher in political affairs in Baghdad, believes that "the population census could turn into a curse rather than a blessing if the form contains a section on ethnic origin, religion or sect."

He fears the census may lead to division if it is held without political consensus, and if the demands of some parties are not taken into consideration. "The census can only succeed if every party’s concerns are dealt with satisfactorily in advance.”

So far, neither the Kurdish demands, nor indeed Maliki’s evident desire to carry out the census soon have borne fruit.

The government has spent millions of dinars preparing for the census and is keen to see it through. In a statement seen by Niqash, Maliki declared that "the Ministry of Planning is handling a binding national issue that should be finalized. Things should be expedited because they are important to the developmental process in all areas."

But according to Jerzy Skuratowicz, Deputy Special Representative of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), "the implementation of the census cannot be a viable alternative to resolving the country's complex political issues."

“It has become clear that the census has become a source of tension between local communities and is further promoting misunderstanding among them”, he told Iraqi politicians and officials from all parties in Baghdad recently.

And he warned that “a new crisis will soon be looming in the already troubled Iraq, if no political agreement is reached regarding the census."

Joost Hiltermann, the International Crisis Group’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, is more positive. In an article published on ICG's website he wrote that "a delay is not such a bad thing. If anything, Iraq's caretaker government should give serious consideration to delaying the census even further, until the new government can correct its flaws and turn it into something that will be truly useful for the whole country."

It is also rumoured that some opponents to the census have sought the assistance and advice of Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani. Among them, Usama al-Nujaifi, the new speaker of the house, who recently visited Sistani with a delegation, that included Kurds.

For its part, the US regards the census as a major challenge, where its assistance is needed prior to the troops' withdrawal from Iraq by the end of next year. It is closely watching the situation but has not yet made any direct intervention, that could be deemed unacceptable by some local parties.

At the meeting on 5 December, political leaders agreed to form a committee to agree on outstanding issues relating to the census. It would include representatives from all ethnic groups and different viewpoints.

There would also be a team from the Ministry of Planning and Development Cooperation, its counterpart in the Kurdistan region and the United Nations to provide support and advice.

The committee has two weeks to come up with a result. But, with each party refusing to compromise, an agreement seems highly unlikely, and another postponement looks inevitable.