Kirkuk, a mirror of Iraq's schisms

A city in Iraq's oil-rich northeast could become a model for the future, or a free-for-all for competing interests and the settling of old scores.

Since 1998, when Iraqi officials put Inam Ismail on the back of a truck and sent her away from Kirkuk, she has been a refugee in her own country, living with six family members in two dingy concrete rooms off a muddy pathway in the Kurdish-controlled city of Arbil.

Ms. Ismail sees a war against Iraq as an opportunity to reclaim her father's home in Kirkuk, with the garden of lemon and orange trees she remembers from childhood. If the Iraqi Arabs who live in the house now won't leave, she says, "I will take out their eyes."

Ismail is a Turkmen, Iraq's third-largest ethnic group after Arabs and Kurds, and the victim of a decades-old Iraqi program of ethnic cleansing in Kirkuk and other cities.

Kirkuk epitomizes the difficulties of toppling President Saddam Hussein and repairing his regime's excesses. If the US overthrows Mr. Hussein and sets up a new administration, its tasks will include sorting out relations between Iraq's ethnic and religious groups, undoing the effects of decades of repression, and fending off some of Iraq's neighbors.

Kirkuk is home to nearly a million people of several ethnicities and religions, many of whom have suffered grievously under the rule of Hussein's Baath Party. Turkey may intervene, ostensibly to protect Kirkuk's Turkmens, with whom Turks share a common linguistic and ethnic heritage.

"This is a city that symbolizes the whole future of Iraq," says Khaled Salih, a political scientist at the University of Southern Denmark who specializes in Kurdish nationalism.

Kirkuk is located in one of the richest oil fields in Iraq, making it a temptation for Iraq's neighbors. Hussein's forces are digging in and may attempt to set alight the oil wells adjacent to the city, as they did in Kuwait in 1991. US troops are expected to rush in to take the city, in part to prevent sabotage.

The Americans won't be the only ones sprinting toward Kirkuk. Tens of thousands of Kurds and Turkmens - former residents of the city like Ismail - are already anticipating their homecoming, with the encouragement of Kurdish and Turkmen leaders. These internal exiles say they will move as soon as Hussein falls.

At about this time it is possible that both Kurdish militias and Turkish forces will approach the city. Some analysts fear that a Turkish intervention as far south as Kirkuk may also draw in Iran.

Beyond the potential for conflict among these armed forces, a new administration in Iraq will immediately be faced with humanitarian and political complexities.

First, there is the possibility of violence - as Ismail's comments suggest - between returning exiles and the Arabs that occupy their land and homes. "They caused the death of my father," says Ismail, referring to the current inhabitants of her childhood home. "How can I be prevented from taking revenge against them?"

There is also some risk of conflict between Kurds and Turkmens - who have clashed in the past in Kirkuk - which is one reason why Turkey has said it will protect its ethnic kin.

But Kurdish leaders say Turkey would simply use its ethnic link with the Turkmens to mask its real goal: to prevent the Kurds from gaining control of the city. (Turkish officials fears that a Kurdish state with Kirkuk as its capital could encourage a revolt of Kurds within Turkey.)

Turkmens in northern Iraq are divided over whether Turkey should insert itself into Kirkuk; Ismail and other Turkmens credit Kurdish authorities for protecting their cultural and linguistic rights during the 12 years they have administered parts of northern Iraq.

The Kurds see Kirkuk as their Jerusalem - a place to which they long to return - and the future capital of a Kurdish unit in a federal Iraq. Historically the Kirkuk area has been predominately Kurdish, but the last census considered reliable, done in 1957, showed a Turkmen majority in the city proper.

Kirkuk is a center of Iraq's oil industry. Its wells currently pump a million barrels of oil a day, and industry analysts say Kirkuk sits atop 10 billion barrels of proven reserves.

Even so, the Kurdish claim is largely based on the suffering the Kurds endured beginning in the mid-1970s, when the Iraqi government began to "Arabize" the city by forcing out Kurdish and Turkmen residents and replacing them with Iraqi Arabs.

The suffering reached a peak in the late 1980s, when the Baath Party government orchestrated a genocidal campaign against Kurds throughout northern Iraq, including Kirkuk. Ali Hassan al Majid, the official in charge of the campaign - in which the Iraqis killed between 50,000 and 100,000 Kurds, according to Human Rights Watch - had his headquarters in Kirkuk.

"For others, Kirkuk is important because it lies on a sea of oil," Masoud Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), told the Los Angeles Times late last year. "For us, Kirkuk is important because it lies on a sea of our blood."

Although Kurdish leaders say the city's future status is negotiable and that they maintain no exclusive claim to Kirkuk's oil wealth, they insist that it be seen as a "Kurdistani" city - one that includes Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens, and Assyrians - and that displaced residents be allowed to return.

"With fair negotiation," says Nasreen Sideek, minister of reconstruction and development in the portion of northern Iraq controlled by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, "and guarantees offered by the center to the north that the Kurdistani region will get its fair share from the country's wealth, we could relax [the] demand" that Kirkuk become the region's capital.

In Shorish, a village along the road that links the Kurdish-controlled city of Sulaymaniyah with Kirkuk, former residents of the city say it has long been their dream to return.

From Shorish, residents can see the Iraqi emplacement that marks the end of Iraq's administration and the beginning of Kurdish control. "If today the Iraqi soldiers left their posts, tomorrow we will go back," says one Kurd, who asked that his name not be used.

Ismail, in Arbil, says she cannot afford to wait very long. She and her husband are both unemployed and in recent weeks they have sold their satellite receiver, a camera, and a bicycle to raise money. In the room in which they and four children sleep, an empty shelf is evidence of their dwindling possessions.

If they were in Kirkuk, Ismail says, they could rely on their families for help in troubled times. And they would be able to recover her father's house. She says he bribed local officials for years in order to stay in his home as long as possible, but in the end he was forced out. He didn't live much longer.

"My father died because of his sorrow for his house," she says.

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