March 2, 2009 / 5:26 PM / in 10 years

Iraq plans census to map ethnic divisions

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq will hold a nationwide census in October, its first in 22 years, mapping ethnic divisions in a survey which could encourage reconciliation or fan the feuds threatening its fragile calm.

Residents hold up their coupons during a distribution of relief goods by the Iraqi soldiers to people living in the marshes near al-Ezz river, on the outskirts of Basra, 420 km (260 miles) southeast of Baghdad November 23, 2008. REUTERS/Atef Hassan

The census, the first including Iraq’s Kurdish north since 1987, will take place over the course of one or two days, said Mehdi al-Alak, who heads Iraq’s Central Organization for Statistics and Information Technology (COSIT).

Alak is planning to send at least 250,000 schoolteachers to homes across major cities and dusty hamlets to shed light on the true makeup of Iraq’s diverse population.

Questions on ethnicity and religion promise to make the census a charged affair in a country emerging from years of sectarian violence and still gripped by disputes over political power, disputed territory, and oil. Six years after the U.S.-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s population is believed to be around 28 million, an estimate obtained via distribution of state food rations.

But after years of bloodshed prompted millions of Iraqis to flee their homes, in addition to Saddam-era policies that packed strategic areas with fellow Arabs, the composition of sensitive areas is far from clear.

Such murkiness has made for easy political manipulation across the country. Perhaps the best example of where demography has fueled discord is the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

Kurds, believed to be around a fifth of Iraqis, claim a majority there and want to make it part of their semi-autonomous northern region, an idea rejected by its Arabs and Turkmen.

The breakdown of Kirkuk’s population will be decisive if and when officials hold a referendum on the city’s future.

A clear snapshot could be telling in other disputed areas, like Diyala and Nineveh provinces, where the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is looking to assert central government authority at the expense of Kurdish authorities in Arbil.

“We will not allow political, religious or ethnic interference. Our work is simply technical,” Alak said.

The census might also alter allocation of the budget, 17 percent of which goes Kurdistan based on population estimates.

NO SECTARIAN BREAKDOWN

Preliminary results, a simple population count, should be ready several days after the census, but more detailed data on ethnicity and religion are not expected until late July 2010.

Alak said religion questions will not delve into sect, so the census will not provide data on the breakdown between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, who have fought a bloody feud since 2003.

The census will count those displaced within Iraq at their current residence, but will note where they lived previously.

It will also seek to include, through outreach by Iraqi embassies, the millions of people who have fled the country.

Alak said a national curfew would be imposed on census day to ensure the survey can be carried out in country where violence is still a fact of daily life.

Even the safest of Iraqi cities are girded by concrete walls and soldiers rumble down the streets in heavily armed vehicles.

The northern city of Mosul, like several other restive areas, is still under siege. In the city, where minority Kurds have controlled the government since 2005, Sunni Islamist insurgents stage car bomb attacks and assassinate police.

Editing by Dominic Evans

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