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On the surface, a referendum on Kirkuk can seem like a black-and-white choice: It either joins the Kurdistan Regional Government or it doesn’t. But voters won’t just be deciding where the province goes; they will be deciding the boundaries of a larger area.

Kirkuk is just part of several vaguely defined areas that the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq has dubbed "disputed internal boundaries."

Most of these areas lie along a fuzzy border that divides Kurdish- and Arab-dominated areas.

"A huge volume of decrees" has altered these boundaries since Iraq’s independence, said Alexei Maslov, a UNAMI political affairs officer. So Iraqi leaders must first agree where they want to draw these borders before they submit them to voters for approval.

UNAMI has instituted a three-phased approach to suggest ways to resolve the dispute, although Iraqi leaders have the final say.

In each phase, advisers tackle certain disputed areas, with the least controversial areas addressed in the first phase and the hardest, Kirkuk itself, in the third.

"We started it phase by phase because it is a very complex issue," he said.

The negotiations also entail much more than where borders are drawn. For each disputed area, U.N. advisers will recommend several "confidence-building measures" to ensure minority populations are treated equitably. These may include fair hiring practices, language guarantees and freedom of movement assurances.

"Everyone recognizes that progress on the resolution of disputed internal boundaries — and clarification of administrative alignment — must take place alongside wider political compromises that reassure the people of Iraq and solidify the unity of the Iraqi state," Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. secretary general’s special representative in Iraq, said in June when he released the first recommendations.

Advisers are moving into the second phase after presenting their first round of proposals, which Iraqis on all sides roundly criticized.

The outcome wasn’t a surprise since no one got exactly what they wanted, and Maslov is encouraged that the Iraqis asked the advisers to continue work on the later phases.

"You cannot have it all," he said with a shrug.

So far, the advisers haven’t formally started work on Kirkuk proper, although the issue has naturally come up in talks with Iraqi leaders.

Maslov wouldn’t speculate on when that would happen.

"At the moment, there’s a lot of debate going on," he said.

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