BAGHDAD - More than 1,000 Sunni Arabs and Turkomen rallied yesterday against Kurdish demands to incorporate the oil-rich area around Kirkuk into their autonomous region, on the eve of a special session of Parliament aimed at defusing the crisis.
The dispute over Kirkuk and its vast oil wealth has blocked passage of legislation providing for provincial elections this year, a major US goal aimed at reconciling Iraq's rival ethnic and religious communities.
Protesters in the town of Hawija, west of Kirkuk, carried banners rejecting Kurdish demands for control of Kirkuk, said Brigadier General Sarhat Qadir of the Kirkuk police.
The rally ended without violence, but residents said the atmosphere was tense in Kirkuk, where a suicide bomber killed 25 people Monday during a Kurdish protest.
Last month, Iraq's Parliament approved legislation to hold elections for local councils in all 18 provinces, including Tamim, where Kirkuk is located.
The measure said seats on the ruling council in the Kirkuk area should be divided equally among Kurds, Turkomen, and Arabs. It would also transfer security responsibilities in Kirkuk to mostly Arab military units brought from central and southern Iraq instead of those already there - an apparent move against Kurdish peshmerga troops heavily deployed in the area.
But Kurds and their allies, who hold a majority on the council, oppose the power-sharing formula. Iraq's three-member presidential council rejected the measure and sent it back to Parliament after President Jalal Talabani - a Kurd - opposed it.
Parliament adjourned for a one-month summer recess last week, but agreed to hold a special session today to try to resolve the standoff and approve a new election bill. Electoral officials have said failure to pass the bill could delay the nationwide vote until next year.
The United Nations has recommended postponing provincial elections in Kirkuk as a way of ensuring the balloting elsewhere in the country.
It was unclear, however, whether the Kurds would agree to the UN proposal. Many Iraqi Arabs and Turkomen believe control of Kirkuk could encourage Kurds to declare full independence for their self-ruled region.
Iraqi politicians held meetings yesterday in hopes of narrowing differences before today's Parliament session. But little sign of compromise emerged.
Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman said the Kurds were opposed to the quota system for the council and to bringing in soldiers from elsewhere because it cast doubt "on the honesty and the loyalty of the current security force in Kirkuk."
The Kurds also were insisting on a clear statement that the law would not supersede a constitutional formula providing for a referendum on the future of Kirkuk, which has been repeatedly delayed, Othman said.
Sunni Arab legislator Osama al-Nujeifi said his group was unwilling to make concessions over Kirkuk and accused the Kurds of trying to "marginalize any other ethnic group, control Kirkuk, and annex it to Kurdistan."
"The situation is very tense there," Sadettin Ergenc, head of the Iraqi Turkoman Front, said of Kirkuk. "The Kurds want to lay bricks for an independent state, but escalating tensions will not bring any good to anyone."
Foreign Minister Ali Babacan of Turkey called Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari of Iraq on Friday to express concern over Kirkuk and the status of the city's Turkoman minority, according to the Iraqi Foreign Ministry.
US officials have been pressing for provincial elections to redress an imbalance in local governments and encourage disaffected Sunnis to join the political process. Many Sunni Arabs boycotted provincial balloting in January 2005, enabling Shi'ite Muslims and Kurds to win a disproportionate share of power.
In a separate development, a Taliban spokesman in Pakistan yesterday denied a US media report that Al Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahri may have been killed or critically injured in a missile strike.
CBS News reported Friday that it obtained a copy of an intercepted letter dated July 29 from unnamed sources in Pakistan that urgently requested a doctor to treat Osama bin Laden's top lieutenant.
"We deny it categorically," tribal militia leader Baitullah Mehsud spokesman Maulvi Umar said. Pakistan army and intelligence officials said they had no information that Zawahri was hit in a missile strike Monday apparently launched by the United States in South Waziristan.