Kirkuk: Iraq's northern tinderbox

12,000 Turkish soldiers are poised to intervene if Kurds move to retake the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

During the day, the expelled Kurdish family can barely fit inside their makeshift A-frame tent, with its paper-thin tarp covering.

They fit better at night, when all eight members of the Karem family squeeze together like cordwood on the stone-cold floor, huddled close under eight thick woolen blankets.

These Iraqi Kurds are among the latest to be forced from the northern oil city of Kirkuk, as part of Saddam Hussein's long-standing "Arabization" campaign. Its aim is to ethnically cleanse Kirkuk and make it an Arab city.

Kirkuk looms large for US strategic planners because Kurds like the Karems claim the city - and its wealth - as their historical heritage. But Turkey warns that any attempt by Iraqi Kurds to seize control of Kirkuk - as they did briefly during a 1991 uprising - will spark a Turkish military reaction.

Turkey announced last week that it has boosted its military strength inside northern Iraq to 12,000 troops, with armor. It is concerned that any increase of Kurdish sovereignty in northern Iraq will prompt unrest among Turkish Kurds.

But it's the determination of Kurdish families - some 100,000 ethnic Kurds and Turkmen were expelled from Kirkuk during the past three decades - that is expected to present a key challenge to any American occupation of Iraq.

"In the night I can't sleep, because I worry about my children," says mother Hamdiya Abdulrahman Karem, standing outside her tent home just inside the border of the Kurdish-controlled territory of northern Iraq.

Kirkuk is the likely fulcrum of US military plans for deployment in northern Iraq. The area is one of two leading Iraqi oil sites with more than 10 billion barrels of proven reserves, analysts say. But competing claims to the city by Kurds, Turkmen, and Turkey - complicated further by decades of enforced demographic change by Iraqi governments - promise to entangle US forces.

"If the Kurds wake up one morning and find that Iraqi military checkpoints aren't there, they will be back in Kirkuk in a matter of minutes," says John Fawcett, an Iraq expert and author of a recent Brookings Institution report on displaced people in Iraq.

"It could be a race for Kirkuk ... that is prone to agent provocateur attacks," Mr. Fawcett says. "It wouldn't take too much to get Kurds fighting each other, Kurds fighting Turkmen, Turkmen calling in the Turks, and whatever remains of the Iraqi military.

"It could be quite a distraction for an invading army," Fawcett adds. "I'm not absolutely confident that these scenarios have been thought through in US military circles."

Despite Turkey's warnings about Kirkuk, the Kurds aren't backing down. "Kirkuk is an important issue for us - it embodies the suffering of Kurds and the most brutal ethnic cleansing," says Barham Salih, prime minister of one of two main Kurdish factions in northern Iraq. "Kurds can't feel safe in Iraq until the historical injustice of Kirkuk is redressed. Iraq can't be at peace without reversing ethnic cleansing."

Mr. Salih says it is "naive to think it can be solved by force only." But establishing justice after so many years of forced population shifts can be a minefield for outsiders, as the examples of Bosnia and Kosovo attest.

"Some people have been away from their ancestral homes for up to 30 years or more - do they have the same rights as those who were moved out of a home in Kirkuk last week?" says Michael Amitay, director of the Washington Kurdish Institute.

The "Arabization" of Kirkuk is only one facet in a much broader policy that Baghdad has used to control this oil-rich and fertile land, while trying to crush opposition among populations embittered by Mr. Hussein's repressive rule.

An estimated 800,000 Kurds were forced to move from 4,000 villages blown up and bulldozed in northern Iraq during Baghdad's Anfal campaign of 1988. UN and human rights groups put the death toll at upwards of 100,000; poisonous gas was used against scores of Kurdish villages.

In southern Iraq, Shia Muslims who make up the majority of Iraq's population have been hardest hit, with the draining of marshes and brutal tactics - including assassination of key leaders - resulting in some 200,000 displaced.

In the north, the last census of Kirkuk thought to be accurate was taken in 1957. It showed Turkmen with a plurality in Kirkuk city, and Kurds with a plurality in the wider province. Arabs are now in the majority throughout - creating a potentially explosive mix.

It is widely believed that "as soon as the battle begins, Arabs and others who have been resettled in Kirkuk will see.

the writing on the wall and get out of town," says Mr. Amitay, who notes that most Arabs left during the brief Kurdish seizure in 1991.

The collapse of the Kurdish uprising then caused another exodus of up to 1.5 million Kurds, who fled to Turkey and Iran. But while dislocation is part of life here, that doesn't ease the predicament of the Karem family.

They lived on edge in Kirkuk for many years, and watched many Kurdish neighbors be forcibly evicted. "The police came to our house and told us to go six times, but we refused. Finally they said: 'If you do not go tomorrow, we will capture you and put you in prison,' " says Mrs. Abdulrahman.

The family piled their possessions and six children into a truck, and - steeped in anger - left the five-room house where they had lived for 21 years.

Now wood is stacked for winter burning beside this flimsy tent; the youngest son, Mohamed, plays with a bent and rusty nail. But the forced departure is a mixed blessing, since here they are free of Hussein's regime.

"The balance is between living in a big house and being afraid, or in a tent and living in peace," Abdulrahman says.

"We worried for our lives there, about security, about our father and [older] brother. If they were arrested, we would be alone," echoes daughter Scala Hassan Hamid, 18, who notes that the men were pressured to join Hussein's "Jerusalem" militia force. "The big change here is that now I have freedom."

"All of us are waiting for the US to attack Iraq, and finish with this regime," says Hidayet Fayaz, a camp resident. "If the Americans attack Iraq, all of us will become guerrillas to liberate our city."

Which is what US planners are worried may happen. A tripartite agreement between the US, Iraqi Kurds, and Turkey could stem a bloody result, though even if one were brokered, that "doesn't mean things can't go wrong very, very quickly," says Iraq expert Fawcett, who visited northern Iraq last fall.

'The population bomb'

Kirkuk presents a double challenge for American forces. "It's not just how you fight and win the war - I'm sure they've thought through virtually everything on that. But how do you deal with the population bomb? How do you adjudicate disputes?" asks Fawcett.

Preserving official documents in Kirkuk - from birth and land ownership records, to lists of who was forced out and who was moved in - will be key to preventing future headaches. But that's a tall order for soldiers who will be expected to wage war at the same time.

"It's very tricky, and we've never gotten it right in any of these interventions; we've always screwed it up," Fawcett says. Unless American forces establish an "adjudication process that has some rule of law to it, rather than rule of the Kalishnikov ... the US military is going to be sitting there [imposing] martial law for some time."

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