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An Iraqi city resists violence

A referendum on the status of ethnically diverse and oil-rich Kirkuk will test its peaceful resolve.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 19, 2007


When a truck bomb blew off the front of the Quoria district police station here and killed seven people in January, fear raced through this ethnically and religiously mixed northern city that it, too, would face the sectarian strife tearing apart Baghdad.

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But on a recent afternoon, Police Chief Abdullah Taja Salahudin showed US soldiers the progress in rebuilding the station, presenting it as a sign of Kirkuk's determination to reestablish peace.

"Kirkuk is in better condition than most cities in Iraq, and that is because for so long we have all these religions and populations in this one place," he says. "People have known for a long time how to live together, and now they refuse to give in to any trouble."

It's this resistance to provocation that has kept Kirkuk from descending into the kind of vengeful violence that has flared elsewhere, Kirkuki and US military officials say.

A Muslim Turkoman, Chief Taja has demonstrated this resolve while promoting the security of this city of Kurds, Turkomans, Chaldean and Assyrian Christians, and Sunni and Shiite Arabs. Aside from that January truck bomb, he has survived four improvised explosive device (IED) attacks. And in June 2006, a car bomb destroyed his house.

As encouraging as that determination has been, all agree that Kirkuk remains one of the biggest tests of Iraq's future. A major hurdle will be the resolution on its status – either as an Iraqi province linked with Baghdad or joined to the adjacent autonomous Kurdish Regional Government.

Iraq's Constitution calls for this issue to be resolved by a referendum among Kirkuk's population by the end of 2007. Most observers agree that sticking to the constitutional calendar is problematic at least – a census is supposed to be taken first and boundaries redrawn – and disastrous at worst. A referendum, which the Kurds would expect to win, could open the door to deeper strife and even the breakup of Iraq.

Underlying all this is Kirkuk's vast oil wealth and the struggle for its control. Who controls the oil, people here say, will determine who controls Kirkuk.

And as if that were not enough, the crucial national reconciliation issues being debated in Baghdad – from a law that is to set oil revenue-sharing among Iraq's sectarian and ethnic communities to revision of deBaathification law that could allow thousands of ex-Baathists to return to their jobs – will play a key role in setting Kirkuk's course.

The end result of those issues may be out of local hands, but in the meantime US officials here and some local security and political authorities are working to encourage intercommunity cooperation – and to see that the general refusal to take the bait of extremist provocations continues.

And the bait is continuous. Over the weekend in Kirkuk, car bombs killed a US soldier on Saturday and two Kurdish security agents on Sunday morning.

"We spend a lot of time trying to gauge ... what it would take to set off the kind of sectarian violence we haven't seen yet – and then working to avoid it," says Col. Patrick Stackpole, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team in Kirkuk. If not pursued carefully, the process of settling Kirkuk's status "surely has the potential to be a spark around here."