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counting iraqis
why there may never be a census again

Mustafa Habib
Iraq’s PM recently said a census would finally be held. There are pressing political and economic reasons to do so. But nobody has managed to hold one yet; there are plenty of good reasons not to count up…
20.06.2013  |  Baghdad

Around a fortnight ago Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki confirmed that his government was determined to hold a census as soon as possible. The announcement was made at a press conference in Erbil, in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, which al-Maliki held together with Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani.

The reasons for this were clear. Al-Maliki was making a conciliatory visit to the Iraqi Kurdish, with who Baghdad has been at loggerheads with recently. And the Iraqi Kurdish have long wanted a census because it would help settle one of the most contentious issues between themselves and Baghdad – that of the disputed territories, areas they say belong to them because there are so many Kurdish living there but which Baghdad says belongs to Iraq because there are just as many Arabs there.

If it was known exactly how many Kurdish lived in an area and how many Arabs lived in that same area, it might be possible to begin to hold the popular referendum that’s needed; such a referendum would allow locals to decide whether they want to be part of Iraq or whether they want to be part of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s share of the Iraqi national budget has also been disputed. Iraq’s Kurds want a 17 percent share of the national budget whereas the current government, led by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, says they can only have 12 percent.

“Our problems with Baghdad are very connected to how many Kurds there are actually in Iraq,” says Kurdish MP, Shwan Mohammed Taha. “Holding an accurate census and having numbers that everyone agrees on would help resolve the issues with the budget and with the disputed territories.”

A census would answer a lot of other big questions too. In order to do anything in terms of social and economic development, it is clear that the Iraqi government needs to know exactly how many people actually live in Iraq.

Censuses of Iraq’s population are supposed to be held in Iraq every ten years and 2007 was the due date for the last one. However because of the instability and sectarian violence in the country then, it was impossible to hold one. Iraq’s census was postponed again in 2009, and then again in 2010. And it turns out the country’s last census was actually held in 1987.

Back then the population numbered just over 16 million – or 16,335,000 to be exact, according to the Ministry of Planning. A census-lite was held in 1997 in 15 of Iraq’s 18 provinces; the census was not conducted by the central government and it ignored Iraqi Kurdistan. The results of that census indicated there were over 19 million in Iraq.

The most recent official reports on Iraq’s population suggest that there are now around 34.5 million Iraqis and that the current growth rate of the population sits at around 3 percent, which puts Iraq among the fastest growing nations in the world.

Because there hasn’t been an official census for some time, the Iraqi population is estimated through figures given by the Ministry of Commerce. And these are based on the numbers of ration cards that have been given out to the Iraqi people. However these figures are not accurate either because there are many Iraqis who don’t actually have ration cards.

A United Nations, World Population Prospects report, revised in 2010, reports that “the population size of Iraq increased from 13.7 million in 1980 to approximately 31.7 million in 2010. It is expected that the population will keep on increasing to reach approximately 83.4 million in 2050.” The United Nations report also confirmed the 3 percent growth rate, although it says this is expected to fall.

In order to hold a proper census now, the Ministry of Planning would need to hire 200,000 staff as well as print a variety of forms for the census, the Ministry says.

“We are ready to conduct a census,” Mahdi al-Allaq, the Deputy Minister of Planning and head of the Central Bureau of Statistics, told NIQASH. “But we can only do it if political conflicts resolving who administrates the disputed areas are resolved – even if that’s just a temporary resolution,” he added. Iraq’s disputed territories, which include places like Kirkuk and Mosul, are still some of the country’s most dangerous areas.

However al-Allaq didn’t think a census would be held in 2013. "The federal government didn’t allocate any funds to hold a census in this year’s budget so we won’t be holding one until next year,” he explained.

There are other reasons why holding a census may not be the most desirable step at present. Many of Iraq’s political and economic problems are very connected with demographic issues like ethnicity and sectarianism. A census would impact on things like the distribution of resources to different parts of the country and accurate electoral rolls.

There has also been plenty of criticism of the electoral process in Iraq. After all, because there’s been no census it is hard to know exactly how many voters there should be or how old they are.

As Faraj al-Haydari, former head of Iraq\'s all important Independent High Electoral Commission, or IHEC, told NIQASH, “a census is fundamental for the success of any election. Unfortunately the lack of census has disadvantaged the democratic system in this country. Since 2004, IHEC has used the Ministry of Commerce’s figures which are obviously not accurate.”

The lack of accurate figures has also meant that it’s not been possible to hold district elections – after all, nobody knows how many people are living in each district.

The lack of a census has also had an impact on Iraqi plans for economic development. A special budget to help those in poverty – which included plans to demolish mud hut schools, start micro-credit finance schemes and build low-cost housing – failed because of a lack of knowledge of the population, says Abdul Hussein Rissan, a member of the parliamentary economics committee in Baghdad.

“The government needs to conduct a population census first,” Rissan told NIQASH, “before they try to implement their five year economic strategy.”

These are all important reasons as to why Iraq needs to conduct a census as soon as possible However a census is also very important to many politicians in Iraq for other reasons. They all want to know the size of the ethnic and sectarian groups in Iraq because of the fact that these numbers are so connected to who gets what, where and when.

One highly ranked source in Baghdad politics told NIQASH that the census forms will ask citizens as to whether they are of Arab or Kurdish origin. The source also said that the inclusion of another question as to which sect every Iraqi belongs to – and in particular, whether they are Sunni or Shiite Muslim – could also be controversial. “The country’s leaders still don’t know whether to include such a question,” the source said.