It's been postponed three times due to tension over disputed territories in the north. But unlike most of Iraq's bureaucratic messes, this one could save lives.
One of the silent victims of Iraq's political paralysis has been the country's long-delayed census. On Oct. 3, the census was postponed for the third time since 2007, when the cabinet pushed it back from Oct. 24 to Dec. 5. The main reason for the latest delay was the concern of some Iraqi politicians, neighboring states such as Turkey, and the United States that going ahead with the census now could just foment unrest in the disputed territories that border the federal Kurdistan region in northern Iraq.
Given the current configuration of the census, however, 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.
The Iraqi census stands to play a critical role in the country's development. Its data will help in drawing electoral districts, allocating funds, projecting future population growth, and planning education, public health, housing, transportation, and other essential elements of a well-regulated state. Particularly in Iraq, which has witnessed several false starts in reconstruction following the 2003 invasion, having accurate socioeconomic data will be indispensable to sound economic planning.
But there's reason to believe that this census, as it is currently designed, will polarize rather than unify Iraqi society. The problem lies in a question that asks Iraqis to define their ethnicity, aiming to get a sense of how big the country's various ethnic groups are. Although such a question will no doubt provide interesting information for academics and analysts, it is not in Iraq's national interest and risks destabilizing some of Iraq's most sensitive hot spots.
The ethnicity question is particularly likely to inflame passions in areas that Kurdish leaders have said they want to incorporate into the federal Kurdistan region in northern Iraq. Along with Kurds, these areas are home to a diverse population of Arabs, Turkmens, and smaller minorities, all of which have been engaged in a tense standoff over Kurdish aspirations, which they resist almost unanimously. The situation holds the potential for violent conflict. Several incidents in these disputed areas over the past two years required U.S. commanders to establish joint military checkpoints along the so-called trigger line dividing Iraqi Army troops from Kurdish regional guards. Finding a negotiated solution to the tug of war over these areas, with the city of Kirkuk at their center, will be critical for Iraq's future.
All sides see the census's ethnicity question as a proto-referendum on these areas status. Everyone assumes that in a referendum Kurds would vote in favor of accession to the Kurdistan region while the vast majority of non-Kurds would vote against. If the population in a given area is found to be majority Kurdish, the political case for linking this area to the Kurdistan region will be greatly strengthened -- regardless of the wishes of the area's non-Kurdish population, whatever its size. The census, in other words, would increase the momentum toward a non-negotiated solution of these areas' status via an ethnically driven, zero-sum-game plebiscite. Going forward with the ethnicity question intact, then, would almost certainly lead to an Arab and Turkmen boycott, as well as popular protests in disputed territories, likely culminating in violence.
Some of the analysts most familiar with the tensions along the Arab-Kurdish fault line have also lent their support to efforts to cut the ethnicity question from the census. Emma Sky, who served for three years as a senior political advisor to Gen. Ray Odierno, the former U.S. commander in Iraq, argues that asking the citizens of Kirkuk and other disputed areas will only increase the divisions among the population.
"Many of the people have intermarried over generations and speak each other's languages. Including the ethnicity question in the census will force people to identify themselves in narrow terms when they often have many different aspects to their identity," she said. "You are making people define themselves in a way that is not conducive to the healing process at a time when there is a desperate need to focus on issues which bring people together."
In Iraq, the census is designed, prepared, and implemented by the Ministry of Planning and carried out by schoolteachers. They, as well as members of the security forces, have already received the census form for them to fill out individually and soon will be given the forms for the general population. Clearly, the train has been set in motion. It is not too late, however, to slow it down or put it on a slightly different track.
As a first step, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's caretaker government should delay the census until the new government comes to power, lest ethnic conflict erupt during troubled negotiations over government formation. The tensions created by the census could also represent the breaking point for former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's al-Iraqiya list, which won a plurality of seats in the new parliament, as many of its Sunni Arab members hail from precisely these disputed areas. Al-Iraqiya, or at least a significant number of its most prominent Sunni leaders, might turn their backs on the political process altogether.
Moreover, if a U.N. compromise proposal over the ethnicity question, currently under discussion by Iraqi political leaders, should fail, the Maliki government should remove that question from the census. It should also remove for now a question that inquires about the respondents' mother tongue. Although this question could provide useful information for the education system, it will also be interpreted as using the same ethnic logic and thus will have the same pernicious effect.
The challenge of launching negotiations over Kirkuk and the other disputed areas that produce a final, peaceful, and durable status settlement still remains. Kurdish leaders have been rightly impatient over lack of progress. The new Iraqi government, with the full support of the international community and with the United Nations as a facilitator, should make a strong commitment to getting talks under way. A referendum, as outlined in the Iraqi Constitution, should only be held based on agreement reached between political leaders. Ethnically driven shortcuts, which the format of the census currently promotes, will only undermine this effort -- and endanger Iraq's fragile stability.
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