BAGHDAD Aug 17 A referendum that will determine the status of the potential flashpoint Iraqi city of Kirkuk is unlikely to go ahead on schedule, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq has said.
The referendum for the ancient northern city, provided for in the Iraqi constitution, was due by the end of the year but has become bogged down in sectarian differences.
"There is a general realisation out there that, as a practical matter, it is going to be very hard to stick to the original timetable," U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker told Reuters in an interview in Baghdad late on Thursday.
"The timetable for the end of the year was set with an expectation that the preparations would move ahead in a way (that) they haven't," he said.
Kirkuk, a multi-ethnic mixing pot of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians Turkmen and Armenians 250 km (155 miles) north of Baghdad, has plenty of oil, but may not have much time left to avoid being dragged into Iraq's intractable cycle of sectarian bloodshed, analysts fear.
Kurdish nationalists want Kirkuk included in their semi-autonomous region and the referendum held by the year's end.
But Arabs and Turkmen fear they will be pushed out of the city if the vote goes ahead and want the referendum either stalled or put off for good.
So far there has been no sign of a census -- due by the end of July -- or other important milestones like a "normalisation" process mandated under Article 140 of Iraq's 2005 constitution.
"The preparations just are not there. There has been no movement on various elements of the Article 140 process, what they call normalisation, compensation paid to the Arab settlers," Crocker said.
That process is meant to reverse Saddam Hussein's Arabisation policy in Kirkuk of the 1970s and 1980s, when thousands of Kurds and Turkmen were expelled from Kirkuk to be replaced by Arabs.
Sunni Arabs fear that "normalisation" -- under which Arab families have been offered $15,000 and land to return to their original home towns -- is an attempt to influence the outcome of the vote by changing Kirkuk's demographics.
Others believe it is an unsubtle attempt by Kurds to deny others a share of the wealth from the 584 oil wells in the area.
Some in Kirkuk have called on the United Nations to solve the looming crisis and help run the referendum. Article 140 includes a provision for a neutral arbitrator like the world body to be appointed in specific circumstances.
The United Nations mission in Iraq said it understood the referendum time-frame was getting "narrower and narrower" and that it stood ready to assist in areas such as drawing up electoral boundaries and voter registration.
"We definitely have the electoral and technical expertise if called upon. Kirkuk is very fluid and the United Nations definitely can provide help if requested," Said Arikat, U.N. mission spokesman in Baghdad, told Reuters on Friday.
Many Kurds regard the referendum as a "red line" issue, but analysts fear Kirkuk could quickly sink into violence if it goes ahead against the wishes of other sects.
There are also federal implications for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's already shaky coalition, with Kurdish leaders warning they could quit the government if the referendum does not go ahead.
(Reporting by Sherko Raouf in Kirkuk and Paul Tait and Ross Colvin in Baghdad)