Ethnic groups maneuver for position to claim Kirkuk

Scores of barefoot children run through a fetid swamp of grey, greasy water and garbage. They play on the chassis of old Iraqi army vehicles and live in tumble-down barracks. The children dig up old landmines and bring them to American troops; the previous unit paid them $5 per weapon. The al-Deem family has been living in a refuse-strewn field in northern Kirkuk for one and a half years, lured by a promise from Kurdish political leaders they would be given a house and land by the government.


"Nobody gives us what they promised," Farkar al-Deem, the father, says.

They left Kirkuk for Sulemaniyah in 1991. Saddam Hussein, freshly ejected from Kuwait by a U.S.-led alliance, kicked them and thousands of others out following the rebellion that U.S. President George H.W. Bush called on Kurds to stage and then abandoned.

Sulemaniyah was protected by the U.S.-enforced no-fly zone, and they were safe there. They rented a house and the children went to school. Farkar worked as a truck driver.

Now, Farkar, his wife and six dirty children squat in three wool tents, with three tin water cans for washing and drinking. Skinny chickens peck around their feet; some of the children wear plastic sandals, some are barefoot. Farkar does not work, and the children cannot go to school.

"We cannot go back to Sulemaniyah because the rents are now too high," Farkar says. "We are waiting for the Kurdish government to do as they promised."

And the Al Deems have it good, compared to the settlement of Kurdish squatters about 100 meters away, just on the other side of the wall from the U.S. Army base.

"It's officially called Resgari," says Sgt. Jake Ganieany, 31, of Helena, Mont. Resgari means freedom in Kurdish. "But we call it the Kurd ghetto."

Six of the barracks -- without window frames or doors, and covered in graffiti -- are now whorehouses. Jerry-rigged power and water lines drip across the road in this makeshift village.

Farhad Zorab, a Kurdish Iraqi army sergeant, lives here with his family. He also lived in Sulemaniyah, having moved there in 1980 when Saddam's forces learned his father and brother were part of the then illegal Kurdish militia, the Peshmerga.

Now the Peshmerga are part -- a large part -- of the U.S.-backed Iraqi army. And oil-rich Kirkuk, balanced on the border between the majority-Kurdish areas of the north and the region to its south where their ethnic rivals the Turkmen and Arabs hold sway, is at the center of a gathering storm over its status.

"We don't have a choice to live in any other place," Zorab says, incongruously neat and pressed in a traditional Kurdish suit with a flowered sash. "Our area is a piece of crap."

He stays, however, because Kirkuk "is our country."

"Kirkuk belongs to (Kurdistan). We have the freedom to live wherever we want," says Zorab.

Such claims on the city worry Najib Zeki, a Turkoman college professor. He lives in a pleasing and clean two-story home in the center of the city, around the corner from what used to be an American forward operating base. His wife and two teenage children scramble out of the house to happily greet Ganieany and his troops who lived next door until June.

"This is a Turkoman city," Zeki says. "But the Kurds want to claim it for Kurdistan, and that is the first step toward separating it from Iraq."

Zeki believes -- and Farkar and Zorab's stories confirm -- that there is a campaign afoot to flood Kirkuk with Kurds in order to gerrymander a forthcoming referendum on the city's status.

The vote, expected in 2007, will determine what Kirkuk's status will be -- whether it will be a part of the Kurdish north or have a special status where its oil riches are shared nationally across the country.

"They will make an election in 2007. At the same time the Kurdish families are coming. If we wait until then, what will be the result? Kirkuk will be a Kurdish city," said Zeki.

"People here believe the Kurds are trying to get their own homeland. They can't make a homeland without Kirkuk," he said.

Kirkuk literally floats on oil and natural gas. Just north of town is a 30-foot diameter crater known as the "eternal flame;" tongues of fire skip across its surface. Natural gas seeps up through cracks in the soil and must be burned off to prevent an explosion. The fire has supposedly been burning for 5,000 years.

Nearly all of the fuel consumed in Iraq comes from the northern oil fields around this city. The southern fields yield oil for export. Forty percent of Iraq's oil is here -- 6.4 percent of the world's supply.

Two years ago the Iraqi government, at the urging and with the support of the United States, passed a law that invited Kurds displaced from Kirkuk by Saddam back into the city. If they could prove their claim on a house or land, the government promised it would buy it back for them or compensate them for it, said Lt. Col. Don Blunck, the operations officer for the 116 Brigade Combat Team stationed in Kirkuk since February.

There are more than 35,445 internally displaced Kurdish who have come back to Kirkuk. Two massive camps were set up for them, but they have squatted all over the city. They have made a total of 15,600 claims. A year and a half later, more than 2,200 claims have been adjudicated but exactly none have been paid, Blunck said.

"It's hung up in the money and the process itself," Blunck told United Press international.

Despite the lack of action, the impression here on the part of Turkmen and Arabs -- who each comprise about a third of the city's current population -- is that the Kurdish controlled provincial government is working hard to give the land back to their brethren.

"Many offices in Kirkuk are run by Kurds and instead of cleaning the city, helping the city, they are returning lands to Kurdish families from the north," says Zeki.

The provincial council has 41 members; 24 of them are Kurdish. Nine are Sunni Arab and eight are Turkmen, largely because many of the latter groups boycotted the election in January.

For the first half of the year the minorities boycotted council meetings, finally showing up in July, said Blunck.

"The Arabs and Turkmen won't go into a political meeting unless they've got the issue greased so they don't lose face," he explained.

The removal of Saddam's repressive regime created a power vacuum that now finds the groups jockeying for control. Kirkuk's importance to the national economy and its relatively balanced ethnic mix make it a potential source of trouble -- especially because the constitution is seen by Sunni Arabs as opening the door to secession by the Kurdish North and the Shi'ite south.

The draft constitution adopted earlier this month by the Transitional National Assembly is likely to "encourage ethnic and sectarian violence, and hasten the country's violent break-up," according to the International Crisis Group.

In a report issued Monday the group, an independent conflict-resolution organization, says that Sunni Arabs view the constitution as "Threaten(ing) their existential interests by implicitly facilitating the country's dissolution, which would leave them landlocked and bereft of resources."

These ethnic tensions haven't bubbled over into violence, said Blunck, at least not yet.

But the signs are not encouraging.

Though Kirkuk is usually relatively quiet, a single Thursday night earlier this month saw a mortar attack and four improvised explosive devices at a police checkpoint. One IED exploded; three others were found and destroyed before they could do any harm.

"Before the war, everyone loved each other," says Zeki. "Now the Kurds are coming in. At the beginning after the war, the Turkmen and the Arabs were happy the Americans came and liberated Iraq. But after, the people think the Americans support the Kurds.

"Now 75 percent of the people are against the Americans -- not fighting them, but not loving them."

Von: 28 September 2005,, by Pamela Hess

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