- Iraq - Iraqi politics - Kurdistan
AFP - Iraq will delay indefinitely its first census in two decades because of political wrangling over disputed areas in the country's north, Planning Minister Ali Baban said on Sunday.
The census was due to have been held on October 24.
"The planning ministry is ready to do the census technically," Baban told reporters following talks in the holy city of Najaf with Iraq's supreme Shiite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani.
"But because of some reservations from some political parties in Kirkuk and Nineveh provinces, we have decided to delay it to another time," he added, without specifying a date.
Planning ministry spokesman Abdul Zahra al-Hindawi said the census could potentially be held in April or October 2010.
Kirkuk and Nineveh provinces are both in northern Iraq bordering the autonomous Kurdistan region, and are at the centre of a land dispute between the central government in Baghdad and Kurdish authorities in Arbil.
There are fears that the dispute between the two sides, particularly over the fate of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, could trigger open conflict.
Kurdish peshmerga fighters moved into the disputed areas in Kirkuk, Nineveh, Diyala and Saleheddin along the Kurdish region's border with the rest of Iraq during the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled dicator Saddam Hussein.
The authorities in Arbil want them to be part of an expanded autonomous region, while Baghdad has pushed for direct control of the regions.
Determined not to concede any ground in their territorial claims, members of the Kurdish regional parliament recently approved a new constitution formalising their claims to Kirkuk and the other disputed areas.
With US-backing, the United Nations has proposed a compromise solution in which Kirkuk would be given a special status with links to both the central government and the Kurdish regional authorities.
However neither side has shown much interest so far in the plan.
The census was set to be the first conducted nationwide since 1987, at a time when Saddam's regime was still on good terms with the West before its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
That count gave a total population figure of 16 million. The United Nations puts the current population at 29.6 million.
October's census was to have asked Iraqis their religion, but amid the super-sensitive divide between Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority and its Sunni Muslim former elite, householders would not be asked to specify their sect.
The census was to have been carried out by a quarter of a million assessors recruited from among Iraqi schoolteachers.