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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.

(Page 2 of 2)

History plays a major role in the tensions that roil the city. For most Kurds, establishing Kirkuk's status as a part of the Kurdish north is the only way to redress the wrongs of Saddam Hussein. Under that regime, nearly 1,000 Kurdish villages were razed and a program of "Arabization" – wholesale import of Arab families – was implemented to destroy the Kurdish influence. Now as part of the constitutional process, Kurds who were forced out are being allowed to return, while Arabs who arrived under "Arabization" are offered land elsewhere and compensation for homes they choose to leave.

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All of this has led some communities to openly question whether redressing old sins is resulting in a repeat of the past. "There is a fear that what the previous regime did to so many may be about to happen again to others," says Tahsin al-Kahia, a Turkoman member of the Kirkuk Provincial Council.

For some, another facet of Kirkuk's history holds the solution to its tranquility. "These communities have a long tradition of living and working together that goes back way before Saddam Hussein, and that's the history and tradition they need to call on now," says Howard Keegan, chief of the State Department's Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Kirkuk.

He says that he believes the negative examples elsewhere in Iraq is also having an impact here. "We don't have the Shia-Sunni divide here," Mr. Keegan adds, "but we do have TV, so people see the images of communities tearing each other apart."

US military and civilian officials say they can't alter a constitutional process, but they say they can encourage steps to ease the transition to whatever future Kirkuk chooses. One of those steps is simple education. "Some decision on Kirkuk's status is inevitable, but the key to easing tensions about it is education on the process," says Lt. Col. Michael Browder. "There's a lot of fear of being pushed out, of denied rights and services, but if people know that participation in the compensation aspects is voluntary, for example, that usually calms them down."

One problem is that many political leaders from the different communities continue to spout uncompromising rhetoric about Kirkuk's status.

"These issues from the Constitution are like a minefield, they are going to explode if pursued," says Mohammed Khalil al-Jabouri, a Sunni Arab member of the provincial council. "Already the power positions of this government are in Kurdish hands, they are not multiethnic, so we see what a referendum would bring."

The view is the polar opposite in the expansive office of Provincial Council Chairman Rizgar Ali. "We only have one solution, and that is Article 140," the section of the Constitution dealing with Kirkuk, he says. "What is the problem if Kirkuk becomes part of Kurdistan – do they forget Kurdistan is part of Iraq?"

Mr. Kahia, the Turkoman council member, says there are plenty of "problems" with that eventuality, including the impact it would have beyond Iraq's borders. "Neither Turkey nor Iran would accept Kirkuk being united with the KRG [Kurdish Regional Government], and both could cause huge problems we can't even imagine now."

The solution, he says, is to put off the referendum and focus on completing the other measures, such as resettlement and a census. "We have to take time," Kahia says, "we have to lay the foundation of democracy first."