Skip to end of metadata
Go to start of metadata

Published: December 9, 2007 KIRKUK, Iraq--- Even by the skewed standards of a country where millions are homeless or in exile, the squalor of the Kirkuk soccer stadium is a startling sight.

On the outskirts of a city adjoining some of Iraq's most lucrative oil reserves, a rivulet of urine flows past the entrance to the barren playing field.

There are no spectators, only 2,200 Kurdish squatters who have converted the dugouts, stands and parking lot into a refugee city of cinder-block hovels covered in Kurdish political graffiti, some for President Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

These homeless Kurds are here not for soccer but for politics. They are reluctant players in a future referendum to decide whether oil-rich Tamim Province in the north and its capital, Kirkuk, will become part of the semiautonomous Kurdish regional government or remain under administration by Baghdad.


What rankles the stadium's impoverished Kurds most is that while they remain in a foul-smelling limbo, on the other side of town some of the Arabs who were forcibly moved here by Saddam Husseinstill live in comfortable suburbs, a legacy of the dictator's notorious 1980s Anfal campaign to depopulate Kurdish areas and "Arabize" Tamim.

Moreover, some of the squatting Kurds complain that it is their own leaders who forced them to move to Kirkuk, to pack the city with Kurdish votes before the referendum.


The issue is further complicated by Turkey's desire to safeguard Kirkuk's Turkmen minority and its hostility to the notion of the Kurds gaining control of Kirkuk's oil fields. Istanbul fears this could embolden the Kurds to declare their own state, thereby encouraging Kurdish separatists in northeastern Turkey.