KIRKUK // On the green, flower-dusted hills just outside Kirkuk city, hundreds of Kurds indulge in a treasured national past-time: picnicking. It is the first weekend of warm weather, and rich and poor families alike are spreading out rugs and unpacking plates. Sardesht, wearing a gold, sequinned dress in the traditional Kurdish fashion, which people often like to do on holiday days, brings out an enormous plate of braised vine leaves, beans and chicken. Some of the men are hooking up a speaker to the car battery, while the children play with Kurdish flags.
It is in many ways a typical Friday afternoon scene, but today, there seems to be a particular energy to the flag-waving. The oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) claims ought to be part of Kurdistan, is waiting for the results of its first election since 2005. Although the outcome will have no direct effect on attempts to resolve the city's status, if Kurdish parties get a comfortable majority, as they are predicted to do, it will give a boost to the KRG claim that Kirkuk is indeed a Kurdish city.
Early results from six provinces of Iraq have been released, indicating a slender victory for Nouri al Maliki's State of Law bloc. Kirkuk's results are expected to be announced at any moment. "I am waiting all the time. When I come home, I turn on the radio," says Sardesht. "It's a good opportunity to show the future of Iraq and the future of the Kurdish people," says her sister-in-law, Sirwa. Sirwa is particularly keen to see change in Kirkuk because she is studying at a technical college which only gives classes in Arabic. Though born here, like many Kurdish Kirkukis, her family had to flee during the ethnic cleansing which took place under Saddam Hussein, and in the Kurdish city of Erbil, where she lived until 2003, she was not exposed to Arabic, which she is now having to learn.
"It is hard," she sighs. Arabs and Kurds in her college do not mingle much socially, she says. A young man sitting next to her with a baseball cap and sunglasses is a supporter of Goran, a new Kurdish political party which campaigned on an anti-corruption ticket, although it is not expected to do well in Kirkuk, which is dominated by the PUK. The young man's father, sitting on a plastic chair behind him, is a former PUK peshmerga. "[The election] will be a good factor," he says. "It will be the first step to reattach Kirkuk to the KRG."
Many of the Kurds displaced from Kirkuk under Saddam, like Sirwa, have returned to the city since 2003. Arab and Turkmen parties however allege that Kurds not originally from Kirkuk have been brought in to bolster numbers so that the referendum on its status called for in the Iraqi constitution is decided in their favour. There are fears that violence could break out on the streets when the results are announced, which are expected at the end of the month.
For many people, however, the political battle over the city's status is not as important as services and the economy. Kirkuk's disputed status and uncertain security environment has meant that it has lagged behind both the KRG and other Iraqi cities in development. On a bridge by the citadel, in a cloud of smoke rising from the burning rubbish below, Zein al Ardin, an Arab originally from Southern Iraq, works at a stall selling trainers.
"Whoever wins, it's not important for me," he says. "I need a job." "We thought after 2003 we would be like Britain and America," said Ali Akrahi, who owns a small grocery shop in another part of town. "The politicians had been in Europe for a long time, we thought they would bring ideas, but they didn't." When he thinks about Kirkuk's level of service provision, he says, he feels "shame". Back at the picnic, the food has been packed up and the dancing begins in earnest; the young girls line up holding hands while the men stomp energetically, waving their Kurdish flags.
Earlier, Diyar, the host, gave his thoughts on why it is so important for Kirkuk to be part of the KRG. "We need to be protected by our own people," he said. "We want to improve and develop our city like Erbil and Suli." Then, after a pause in which he thought some more, he added "plus, it's blood. I have the same blood with the Kurdish people." * The National