Kurdish lawmakers agreed Wednesday to a six-month delay of a referendum on whether the oil-rich city of Kirkuk should join the semiautonomous region of Kurdistan or remain under Iraqi central government control.
The delay had been expected because of problems in arranging the vote, which was supposed to have been held by the end of the year. A census to determine who would be eligible to vote, for instance, has not yet been done. But by putting off the issue, the lawmakers highlighted what has become a constant in Iraq: the inability of leaders to settle disputes whose resolution is considered key to ending ethnic and sectarian strife.
Another major issue, the rewriting of the Iraqi Constitution, is also unlikely to be completed by a Dec. 31 deadline. The head of the Iraqi parliament's constitutional review committee, Humam Hamoodi, said Wednesday that he would request a three-month delay. That would be the fourth time the target date for revision of the document, approved in a referendum in 2005, had been put off as lawmakers haggled over issues such as provincial powers and religious and cultural freedoms.
The delay in the constitutional revision could hinder progress on other issues that the United States has cited as keys to Iraqi national reconciliation. Those include legislation to manage Iraq's oil industry, and the scheduling of provincial elections to ensure better distribution of power among Shiite Muslims and Sunnis across the country.
Both issues are tied to constitutional revisions that would spell out the powers of regional governments to manage oil and other resources, and establish what power provinces will have to manage their own affairs.
U.S. officials worry that without political progress, recent security gains will not be sustained.
Of the 111 lawmakers in the Kurdistan regional parliament, 94 voted in favor of postponing the Kirkuk referendum. The decision came at the advice of Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations' special representative in Iraq.
The delay had been seen by many as inevitable, and legislators accepted it grudgingly. Sardar Harki, a member of parliament in Irbil, the Kurdistan capital, said the Iraqi government as well as Kurdistan leaders "should exert more efforts . . . to get this issue over and done with."
A parliament member who opposed the delay, Ghafour Makhmouri, said he did not trust the Iraqi government to organize the referendum "in six months, nor in the future."
Makhmouri called on the Kurdistan regional government to draft a bill that would allow it to claim Kirkuk and other areas seized during Saddam Hussein's anti-Kurdish campaigns.
The referendum would allow Kirkuk residents to decide whether they want to join the Kurdistan region. The oil-rich city was subject to massive upheaval under Hussein as he drove out Kurds and other ethnic minorities and replaced them with Arabs.
Since Hussein's ouster in 2003, Kurds have tried to reclaim Kirkuk. Starting in October, the Iraqi government began giving Arab families who moved into Kirkuk under Hussein compensation of about $16,000 to leave.
Kurdish officials say nearly 60,000 Arabs have left the region, and they are confident that a referendum on Kirkuk joining Kurdistan would pass.
But many non-Kurds oppose the referendum, saying it would put Kirkuk's oil in Kurdish hands and make non-Kurds in the region second-class citizens.
Complicating matters is the interest of neighboring Turkey in the Kurdish issue. Turkey worries that giving Iraq's Kurdish minority more economic and political clout could galvanize Kurdish separatist guerrillas fighting the Turkish government.
The Turkish military has launched four raids in northern Iraq this month in an attempt to crush the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK. Tensions between Turkey and the PKK rebels have increased since October, when the Turkish military sent tens of thousands of troops to the border region in response to PKK raids.
The United States sought to distance itself Wednesday from the recent raids by Turkey, a close ally.
"These are Turkish decisions and Turkish actions and Turkish operations," said the U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner. Both he and the U.S. Embassy spokesman, Philip Reeker, denied knowing how many people had been killed in the Turkish raids.
"They are the ones to be arbiters of ground truth," Bergner said, referring to Turkish authorities.
The United States considers the PKK a terrorist organization but finds itself in an awkward position as Turkey steps up its attacks on the PKK. On one hand, it has said Turkey has the right to defend itself against PKK aggression. But it also says it cannot encourage any actions that would destabilize northern Iraq or harm civilians.
A Turkish statement said warplanes Wednesday bombed eight sites suspected of being PKK hide-outs. It was the fourth time since Dec. 16 that the Turkish military had attacked PKK targets in Iraq.
There were no reports of casualties in the latest raids, which occurred a few miles from the border in Dahuk province, in a sparsely inhabited region more than 250 miles north of Baghdad.
Nawzad Hadi Mawlood, the governor of northern Iraq's Irbil province, which is in the Kurdistan region, said four civilians had been killed in the earlier raids. He also said 381 families had fled their homes as a result of the violence.
The PKK's website and television station said the attacks had killed a total of five rebel fighters.
Also Wednesday, two U.S. soldiers were shot to death and three were wounded in Nineveh province in the north, the U.S. military said.
At least 3,900 U.S. troops have died in Iraq since the start of the war in March 2003, according to icasualties.org.
Times staff writer Susman reported from Baghdad and special correspondent Ahmed from Kurdistan.