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Relative peace in Kirkuk defies odds

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If spirited civic debate is a sign of a healthy city, then Kirkuk is in good shape. At a meeting last week of the interim council that governs Kirkuk and its surrounding province, its members shouted and called one another names. Various groups stormed out in protest. "But no one got shot," said Army Lt. Col. Richard White, who works frequently with the council.



Tue, Dec. 14, 2004


Chicago Tribune

source: PUK website

KIRKUK, Iraq - (KRT) - From the millenniums-old citadel that stands on a hill in the heart of this ancient city, one can literally see the complicated mosaic that is Kirkuk.

There, beyond the trash-strewn banks of the Al-Khasa River, are the Kurdish refugee camps and the historic Turkmen homes, the Arab slums and the ornate Assyrian Christian churches.

There, across a footbridge so teeming with people that it seems not another body can fit on it, is the thriving city market with its leathers and fresh fruit, its imported electronics and everyday junk.

And there, far in the distance, are the pipelines of the Northern Oil Co., their burn-off valves spewing the pungent smell of sulfur and the angry orange flames that are visible for miles.

When the government of Saddam Hussein fell after the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, Kirkuk was predicted to be ground zero in an Iraqi civil war. Nearly equal parts Arab Muslim, Kurd and Turkmen, with a number of Iraqi Christians as well, the groups were expected to clash viciously for power, prestige and wealth, setting the stage for a battle that could quickly spread nationwide.

But instead, even as violence and insurgency rages all around it, Kirkuk has defied the odds, becoming one of the most peaceful cities in Iraq. Its economy is growing; its police force is considered a model for the rest of the nation; its City Council meetings are lively and attended by the public.

"People always ask how this happened," said Col. Lloyd Miles, the U.S. Army commander in charge of Kirkuk province, "and I tell them that has a very complicated answer."

Kirkuk's success ironically appears to spring from the very things that once plagued it: Unlike cities where one or two ethnicities dominate, Kirkuk's four main groups have stayed so busy jockeying for political position that they haven't had time to attack U.S. forces or one another, military officials say. Residents are planning a new university, a government center and a military base. And the region's oil-rich land offers a promise of wealth to come.

But these are double-edged swords. With the oil come saboteurs. With ethnic diversity comes the potential for political upheaval. With the expanding economy comes a black market of weaponry.

No one knows whether Kirkuk will remain stable. U.S. intelligence officials fear insurgents from Mosul are creeping toward the area. And as a controversial election looms, deeply ingrained memories of ethnic strife have been reawakened.

"What happens here," Miles said, "may well indicate what will happen in all of Iraq. In miniature, this city represents the nation as a whole. Every problem Kirkuk is dealing with now, the entire country will eventually deal with. I think there is no city that should be watched as closely as this one."

If spirited civic debate is a sign of a healthy city, then Kirkuk is in good shape. At a meeting last week of the interim council that governs Kirkuk and its surrounding province, its members shouted and called one another names. Various groups stormed out in protest.

"But no one got shot," said Army Lt. Col. Richard White, who works frequently with the council.

In Iraq, that is no small thing. High-ranking politicians throughout the country have been slain on a regular basis for the past 18 months. Despite its relative stability, even Kirkuk has not been exempt: Three council members have been killed, and the provincial governor survived an assassination attempt.

The council reflects Kirkuk's diversity. Of the 40 members, 13 are Kurdish, 10 are Arab, 10 are Turkmens and seven are Assyrian Christians. Because there is no runaway majority, the groups seem to keep one another in check.

"They spend all their energy making sure someone else isn't getting the upper hand," Miles said.

Coalition forces said they struggle constantly to show them all equal attention - usually in the form of money. The U.S. troops in Kirkuk, the 2nd Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division, keep spreadsheets detailing how much money has been spent on civic projects for each group. If the Kurds get a soccer field, the Turkmens get a women's clinic. If the Assyrians get a new school, the Arabs get hospital repairs.

The provincial council must do the same thing.

"My thought can never just be the importance of a project," said Hawry Talabani, a Kurd who heads the city's reconstruction committee. "I have to think about the background and the emotion that will come with it. Some neighborhoods need much more than others, but we have to make every group feel they are getting their share."

Still, last week's council meeting included a harbinger of possible ethnic strife.

Led by the Kurds, the council voted to petition the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq to postpone provincial elections in Kirkuk scheduled to coincide with the Jan. 30 national election. The Kurds say thousands of Arabs who were moved to Kirkuk during Saddam's regime should be forced to leave, and that provincial boundaries should be redrawn to the way they were before Saddam changed them. Many more Kurds could then vote.

Arabs and Turkmens, who would stand to lose the most power to a Kurdish majority, want provincial elections to go ahead as planned.

Hoping to take back a majority in this city that they long have hoped will become the capital of the territory of Kurdistan, thousands of displaced Kurds have streamed back into the region and are living in tents and other makeshift housing on the edges of Kirkuk. Hundreds live in a soccer stadium; others are in a bombed-out army base.

Arabs, many of whom moved here decades ago, say they have no intention of leaving.

"I have lived here all my life," said Khawla Hadi, 32, a teacher. "I will do whatever I can to make this city better."

The issue of ethnicity in Kirkuk is contentious enough that it gets specific mention in Iraq's interim constitution. Among other things, the charter calls for people displaced by Arabization to have their property restored to them or receive compensation.

How, when or even if that will be done is up in the air. Tens of thousands of people, mostly Kurds, have filed claims for homes and property lost when they were forced out of Kirkuk province. To date, not one such claim has been resolved.

It is rare to talk about an Iraqi city without security being the first topic of conversation. But Kirkuk has been largely under control for months.

Over the summer, U.S. soldiers here were told to lower their "aggressive profile." They now sit lower in their Humvee turrets and do not point weapons directly at cars or pedestrians.

"We told them one hand should be waving, one hand should be on the weapons," Lt. Col. Mark Dewhurst said.

The situation is not perfect. Roadside bombs still go off; a soldier was killed last week in one such explosion. But unlike in most Iraqi cities, where soldiers live on outlying posts and enter city limits predominantly for patrols, several hundred troops in Kirkuk live in "safe houses" in the city center. Neighborhood kids swim in their pool; the soldiers send their local interpreters to pick up food from restaurants.

Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion of the 21st Infantry Regiment is one such example. The soldiers live in a sprawling compound in eastern Kirkuk. In nearly a year of living there, they have not taken a single mortar round or attack from a rocket-propelled grenade.

The soldiers know their quadrant of the city as well as any local. Every day they visit schools, talk with religious leaders, visit clinics to check that medical supplies are coming in.

Bravo Company works with police stations in its sector, always conducting patrols and missions with police to demonstrate that the Americans are not the only ones in charge of security.

"There are a lot of reasons why Kirkuk is as stable as it is," said Bravo Company's commander, Capt. Bill Hampton. "But one of the reasons at the top of the list is the local police. They've gotten good enough that they go out on missions on their own and handle situations very professionally."

But even though everyone, in theory, is equal under the law, Kirkuk's ethnic divides play a role even in police work. All the precincts initially were set up so they were ethnically and religiously diverse, but the officers have been creating de facto Kurd, Arab, Turkmen and Assyrian stations by trading jobs.

"We keep switching them back but they just trade off again," Hampton said. "It can get frustrating. We're constantly telling them that their loyalty is to the law and the city, not to their own ethnic group. We've made the speech a million times. One of these days it will sink in."

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Created by keza
Last modified 2005-01-04 07:07 PM

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