ARBIL, Iraq (AFP) — The Kurdish regional government in north Iraq has agreed to delay by six months the referendum on the future of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, easing immediate tensions among the mixed population.
Nechirvan Barzani, prime minister of the autonomous Kurdish government, told AFP that his government favoured postponing the vote.
"The regional government is in favour of this extension," said Barzani after meeting in the central city of Najaf with the Shiites' most influential cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
According to article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, the referendum had been due to be held by the end of 2007 to decide whether the region with its oil wealth should go under the control of the autonomous Kurdish government.
Barzani said the vote had been delayed "for technical reasons."
He added that the six-month extension should be used for a UN-supervised mechanism to sort out the issue of Kirkuk, which sits on the second-largest oil and gas reserves in Iraq.
The Kurdish parliament, which heard UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura support a six-month postponement, should soon ratify such a delay, MPs said.
The city has been gripped by ethnic tension since the 2003 US-led invasion, with Kurds demanding its incorporation into the autonomous Kurdish region, while Arab and ethnic Turkmen oppose this, fearing they would be marginalised.
Kirkuk was the scene of a massive population upheaval when the then Iraqi president Saddam Hussein staged the forced exile of tens of thousands of Kurds, replacing them with a mainly Arab population from other Iraqi regions.
The city and its province are now claimed by both the Arabs and the Kurds.
"Your reaction should be dictated by reason and not by passion," de Mistura told parliament. "If not, everyone will suffer the consequences of it."
Organising the referendum has been made impossible by the lack of any census in the region where the relative weight of each community -- Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen -- is an explosive subject.
The regional parliament is to meet after the Muslim holidays of Eid al-Adha which run from December 19 to 23.
Adnan al-Mufti, spokesman for the Kurdish parliament, described the idea of an extension as "positive'. But he told fellow MPs: "You have the last word."
The six-month extension is seen as a chance to set up mechanisms under the United Nations to change boundaries and look into relocating populations to undo Saddam's policy.
With the delay, "the United Nations is trying to stop the clock," a diplomat in Baghdad said.
After the return of Kurdish families who had been displaced, Kirkuk is one of the most volatile issues in post-Saddam Iraq, one which prime minister Barzani has described as a "time-bomb".
The Kurds have insisted on a referendum as a condition for their support of the Shiite-dominated central government in Baghdad.
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