Disputes again delay nationwide census in Iraq

Iraq's government said Tuesday it will again delay a nationwide census that could determine the real numbers of the country's religious and ethnic groups.

The census, which would be Iraq's first nationwide count in more than two decades, has been caught up in the larger dispute over territory and oil between Iraq's central government and the semiautonomous Kurdish region in the north.

Neither side trusts the other to conduct the count in the three provinces that make up the Kurdish north or in the disputed areas along its edge. It is crucial because determining the exact size of the bitterly divided Arab and Kurdish communities in the contested areas could bolster the territorial claims of one side or the other.

At stake is control over the area's oil wealth.

The census was supposed to be held on Dec. 5, but political leaders have been unable to resolve the disagreements over who would do the counting in the disputed territories, said Planning Ministry official Mahdi al-Alaq. Officials will meet again on Thursday to try to settle the argument.

No new date has been set for the census, al-Alaq said.

"The reason behind the delays in holding the census is the deep mistrust among political groups regarding the disputed areas," said Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman.

A 1997 census that put Iraq's population at more than 26 million excluded the three northern Kurdish provinces because they were beyond the control of the central government.

Officials have agreed to count the three provinces in the new census and to ask the residents to identify their ethnicity.

There is also disagreement over who can be considered a legal resident and be counted given that there have been so many population shifts since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The disputed areas are home to Kurds, Arabs and Turkomen.

At the center of the dispute is the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk, which sits on top of one-third of Iraq's estimated $11 trillion in oil reserves. Arabs fear the Kurds want to annex Kirkuk to their northern autonomous region.

In Mosul, another ethnically mixed town in the disputed territory, police said a gang of four insurgents attacked an Iraqi army checkpoint, killing one soldier and wounding another. As police rushed to respond to the attack, they were hit by a blast from a bomb hidden in a shopping cart that was pushed into their path.

One policeman was wounded, officials said, and the attackers fled before they were captured. A medic at Mosul's public hospitals confirmed the casualties.

In another Mosul attack, gunmen raided a convenience store Tuesday evening and killed its Christian owner, police and medical officials said.

Also Tuesday, a bomb hidden on a car in Baghdad killed the driver and wounded three passers-by, city police said. The 1 p.m. bombing came in the capital's western Sunni neighborhood of al-Qadisiya. A medic at Yarmouk hospital confirmed the casualties. And an evening roadside bomb in a mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhood in an eastern Baghdad area wounded three bystanders, police and officials at Al-Kindi hospital said.

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Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Sinan Salaheddin and Mazin Yahya in Baghdad and Sameer N. Yacoub in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.