This ia an area to be watched as it is a powder keg waiting to blow. There are significant Turkomen and Arab minorities who are not about to allow Kurds just to bowl them over.
Assyrian International News Agency
U.S. Scrambles to Keep Kirkuk From Igniting
Posted GMT 5-15-2007 14:56:18
KIRKUK, Iraq -- When a bomb goes off here, Lt. Col. Michael Browder's job is to make it seem like the attack never happened.
Minutes after a truck exploded near a police station last month, Browder and his unit immediately went to work removing the bodies of the 13 victims, among them a U.S. soldier. By nightfall, wrecked buildings were bulldozed, charred cars towed away, and water and power restored.
By making an extraordinary effort to repair damage after such explosions, the U.S. military hopes to soothe public anger and keep Kirkuk from becoming Iraq's next big flash point for violence. Otherwise, Browder says, revenge killings could quickly overwhelm a city that has been called "Iraq's Jerusalem" because of its patchwork of rival sects, competing claims over who should control it, and its importance to the nation's future.
Tensions already are so high in Kirkuk that Browder says just one bomb with mass casualties might be enough to unleash a massive bloodletting. "Everybody's right on the envelope," he says.
Such a scenario would significantly worsen problems throughout Iraq and beyond. The Kurds, the largest ethnic group in Kirkuk, could clash with already-warring Sunni and Shiite Arabs, essentially turning Iraq's sectarian conflict into a three-way affair. Neighboring Turkey could invade to protect its ethnic kin. Turmoil in a region that accounts for about 40% of Iraq's oil production could damage the economy for years to come.
So the U.S. military again finds itself in a peacekeeping role it never envisioned when it invaded Iraq four years ago. Eager to avoid mistakes made in Baghdad, commanders are leading negotiations between an overlapping, often confounding mix of Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and Assyrian-Christians. The groups speak different languages, have different customs and have been battling each other for control of Kirkuk practically since the city was first settled.
"It's a long-term, 1,000-year distrust of each other," says Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq. "We have to try to build some bridges (as) best we can. But at the end of the day, it's going to be up to (them) to figure out how to make it work."
The main source of tension is the desire of the city's Kurds to break from the control of Baghdad and join the largely autonomous region of Kurdistan just to the north. The city's other ethnic groups fear such a move would make them second-class citizens.
Meanwhile, insurgent groups such as al-Qaeda are seeking to create further violence they hope ultimately would bring down Iraq's government.
The police station bombing on April 2 was just the type of incident the U.S. military fears could ignite a broader conflict. The bomb exploded near an all-girls school, injuring some students, Browder says. TV images that night showed crying, blood-splattered little girls at the hospital.
At first word of the blast, Browder ordered 300 Iraqi police to cordon off a six-block radius from the blast site. He also called the police chief and other Kurdish leaders in for a meeting. He told them a group tied to al-Qaeda was believed responsible for the attack.
"I brought them all in and told them, 'This is what happened, this is why it went down, these are the people responsible, and we're going to get this fixed,' " he says.
Browder's unit then tried to anticipate what groups might try to retaliate, and how to stop them. "That's how we keep the lid on it," Browder says.
Oil at the heart of struggle
At first glance, it is difficult to see why so many groups covet Kirkuk.
Piles of garbage mix with sewer sludge in abandoned lots, while butchers hang skinned sheep carcasses from crumbling storefronts. The Kurdish neighborhoods to the north of the city are visibly cleaner, but the garbage piles grow further south, in the Arab districts.
The reason for Kirkuk's importance lies deep beneath the ground. Iraq's first major oil find was just outside the city in 1927, and oil has been at the heart of the struggle for Kirkuk ever since.
In the 1970s, Saddam Hussein began forcibly removing about 250,000 Kurds from Kirkuk and surrounding villages. He replaced them with Arab families, mostly Shiites from Iraq's south, in an effort to "Arabize" the city and control its oil.
After the U.S.-led invasion, as Kurdish leaders sent thousands of Kurdish families back to the city, Kurds quickly took control of key government posts. Today the provincial governor, provincial council chairman and chief of provincial police are Kurds.
Iraq's constitution says Kirkuk's residents must vote by the end of 2007 on whether to join Kurdistan or remain under control of the government in Baghdad.
However, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has refused to set a date for the vote, angering Kurds who believe they form a majority in Kirkuk and would win the referendum.
"National reconciliation can never be reached unless the status of Kirkuk is resolved," Qubad Talabani, Kurdistan's representative to the USA, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February.
A delay "will only raise the risk of a situation erupting out of control," Talabani said.
"The grim reality is that whether we tackle this issue now, or 10 years from now, the final outcome will still be messy," he said. "The longer we delay the process, the greater the tensions will become and the uglier the fallout will be."
Kurds have longed for their own territory for decades, a desire that intensified after Saddam Hussein ordered chemical weapons used against them in the 1980s, killing thousands.
Baghdad has little control in the Kurdish north, where daily life seems entirely different -- and more peaceful.
Foreign investment has streamed into Kurdistan, and direct flights ferry businessmen between Irbil, its capital, and western Europe. Before a truck bomb last week, Irbil had gone nearly three years without a major attack.
Kirkuk's Kurds say joining Kurdistan would mean a better, safer life for everyone. Non-Kurdish groups worry they would become targets for discrimination, unwelcome in their own homes.
Sheik Hussein Ali Salih, a Sunni Arab leader from the western part of Kirkuk province, says a referendum would result in "apartheid."
"We will never accept it," he says. "We will stand very strongly against it with all the means we have."
Heading off a broader war
The Turkmen, a Turkish-speaking minority with ethnic ties to Turkey, consider Kirkuk to be their ancestral capital and cultural center.
"We are still not living in harmony in Kirkuk," says Tahsin Kahya, a Turkmen council member. "We've been marginalized here."
Daniel Serwer, an Iraq expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, says, "The issue is clear: The Kurds want Kirkuk, and not just for the oil. They say it's their capital. Unfortunately, the (Turkmen) feel the same way."
U.S. soldiers are left to somehow resolve these competing claims. Army Lt. Col. Sam Whitehurst, deputy commander of the 3rd Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, which oversees the Kirkuk area, says he spends the bulk of his time at the downtown government building meeting with Turkmen, Arab and Kurdish leaders.
Whitehurst says he often wonders whether the talking will stop and warfare will begin.
Are tensions "going to continue to mount? Is this discussion going to turn into something more open?" Whitehurst asks. "I really don't know. That's a question we ask ourselves every day."
Meanwhile, Sunni-based insurgent groups want to exploit the tension and ignite a broader war, Browder says. The groups operate from nearby Arab villages and often target police patrols or offices of the two main Kurdish parties, he says.
Browder's biggest concern is a large-scale bomb attack on a civilian Kurdish area, such as a market, he says.
That likely would trigger Kurdish leaders to send battalions of the well-armed Kurdish militia, the peshmerga ("those who do not fear death"), into Arab areas of Kirkuk. A sectarian battle similar to the Shiite vs. Sunni violence in Baghdad then could erupt, further complicating efforts to stabilize the country.
Sunni insurgents have been hesitant to cross that line, Browder says. The reason is a mystery, but he says they might be scared of peshmerga reprisals.
"The terrorist organizations know what buttons to push," he says. "They understand what the no-penetration line is."
To avoid a bloodbath, Whitehurst says, one of his duties is also making sure all sides are working toward agreement and preventing retaliatory attacks after the kidnappings, killings and bombings that continue to plague the city.
Late last month, after a Kurdish family of four, including two girls, ages 8 and 18, were killed in their home, Whitehurst called a meeting with Abdullah Rahman Fatah, the Kurd who is the provincial governor, to assure him his troops were helping with the investigation and head off any Kurdish retaliation.
The Kurds have been restrained so far, Whitehurst says. For the most part, Kurdish leaders understand that Kirkuk is a very rich prize.
Any large-scale retaliatory kidnappings and killings, such as those seen in Baghdad, would turn the international community against the Kurds and hinder their ability to claim control of Kirkuk as part of Kurdistan, Whitehurst says.
"For us, the worst thing that can happen is if that restraint would go away," he says.
Conflicting stakes in Kirkuk
Every country in the region has a stake in Kirkuk.
If violence breaks out, Turkey could intervene militarily to protect the Turkmen minority, said Mark Parris, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey now at the Brookings Institution.
Turkey also fears that Kirkuk's oil wealth could put Kurdistan closer to breaking away from Iraq entirely and becoming an independent nation.
Turkey has been battling a Kurdish insurgency within its own borders for years and worries that its own Kurds might be tempted to join a sovereign Kurdistan.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan have urged Iraq's government to protect the country's Arab Sunnis. For now, the government in Baghdad seems content to delay the issue.
Al-Maliki probably will not set the referendum this year, despite what the constitution says, according to Sami Alaskary, a Shiite lawmaker close to the prime minister.
"In principle, he's committed to the constitution and to this referendum," Alaskary says. "But the reality on the ground is we can't do it in the short time we have left. It's impossible."
A delay carries its own risks. Some Kurdish leaders have threatened to withdraw from the federal government in Baghdad if the referendum is not conducted on time. Al-Maliki's coalition depends on Kurdish support to keep its majority in parliament and could collapse if the Kurds leave.
Mahmoud Othman, a leading Kurdish member of parliament, says any delay is unacceptable. "We're not flexible. It has been four years," Othman says.
In the meantime, Iraq's government is trying to avoid violence in Kirkuk by compensating Arabs who choose to leave the city.
Last month, al-Maliki's government agreed to pay $15,000 and a plot of land to each relocated Arab family. Thousands of families have applied for the compensation package but none has received payments, according to the U.S. military. Some Kurds believe that such efforts will guarantee their victory in an eventual referendum -- and that Kirkuk finally will be theirs.
Col. Katab Omer is the commander of a 600-member anti-terrorism squad of the Iraqi police trained by U.S. special forces. His force includes Arabs and Turkmen, though most of the commanders are Kurds.
"Look at the cities inside Kurdistan: They're safe, the streets are clean, services are good," says Omer, a smile stretching across his bushy mustache.
"When this city becomes part of Kurdistan," he says, "it will improve as well."
By Rick Jervis
Contributing: Barbara Slavin in Washington.