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New Governor Elected in Iraq's Kirkuk, Arabs Enraged
By Mustafa Mahmoud

KIRKUK, Iraq (Reuters) -- A new Kurdish governor and a Turkmen provincial council chief were elected on Tuesday in Iraq's northern Kirkuk, enraging Arab politicians in the disputed city who said they would boycott the council.

Kirkuk, an ethnic mix of Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and others, lies just outside Iraq's semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region and its political future is one of the most hotly contested disputes in Iraq.

Kirkuk's provincial government has been led for years by the powerful Kurdish parties that control the northern zone. They want to incorporate the city into the Kurdish region, a move opposed by Turkmen and Arab residents.

The Kurdish governor and provincial council chief of Kirkuk stepped down earlier this month. Political opponents said the resignations were aimed at easing public discontent with the two main Kurdish political parties.

The provincial council elected Najimeldin Kareem, a Kurd, as the city's new governor and Hassan Toran, a member of the Turkmen ethnic minority, as provincial council head on Tuesday. The Arab bloc in the council boycotted the vote.

Abdullah Sami al-Aassi, an Arab provincial council member, said the bloc has complained to the government in Baghdad of what he called "a marginalisation of the Arab component".

"We have suspended our membership in the council... We consider what happened today a marginalisation and elimination process of the Arab component," he said.

Kirkuk, which sits above large oil reserves, is a flashpoint of conflict at a time when Iraq is trying to shake off a legacy of violence and U.S. troops prepare to withdraw completely by the end of the year.

A referendum to determine if Kurds are the dominant ethnicity, which would enhance their claim to Kirkuk and its oil riches, has been repeatedly shelved after Arabs and Turkmen accused Kurds of flooding the city with their kin.

Kurds say dictator Saddam Hussein "Arabised" Kirkuk by encouraging Arabs to move there in the 1980s and 1990s.

Hundreds of Turkmen and Kurdish students clashed on Monday in Kirkuk after Turkmen students tried to hold a ceremony to mark the deaths of Turkmen killed under Saddam. Nine students and three policemen were wounded. [ID:nLDE72R0Y7]

Overall violence has dropped sharply in Iraq from the peak of sectarian fighting between Sunnis and Shi'ites in 2006-07, but insurgents still launch scores of bomb and gun attacks each week, mainly against Iraqi security forces.

Additional reporting by Aseel Kami in Baghdad; Writing by Rania El Gamal; Editing by Peter Graff and Elizabeth Piper.

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