Kurds' struggle intensifies ethnic conflict in Kirkuk

In the Iraqi city, violence erupted last week as six were killed in clashes between Kurds, Turkmens, and Arabs.

As former exiles, Munir al-Makafili and Suhan Said have much in common. Mr. Makafili, an ethnic Turkmen, spent 20 years outside Kirkuk, most of it in Baghdad's notorious Abu Ghraib prison for joining an illicit political party.

Ms. Said, an ethnic Kurd, fared little better. Her husband was executed by Saddam Hussein's regime in 1988. She doesn't know why. A month later, police came to her rented home, gave her and her 4-year-old daughter an hour to pack, and trundled them off to a refugee camp in Iraq's Kurd-dominated Northwest.

For 15 years, she lived in a crowded refugee camp with open latrines and frigid winters. Her daughter's survival, Said says, was a miracle.

Now, both Said and Makafili have returned home to try to rebuild their lives.

But since their return to Kirkuk, they've identified new enemies to replace the vanquished Mr. Hussein. For Said, it's the Kurds. For Makafili, it's the Turkmens and the ethnic Arabs who flooded the city in the 1980s under a government program to "Arabize" this oil-producing hub.

Prior to the US-led invasion of Iraq, some critics worried that Hussein's fall would unleash violent ethnic competition. Here in the multiethnic city of Kirkuk, the hatred and frustration in many residents' voices as they discuss their rivals underscores the city's potential as a flash point.

"[The Kurds] are taking over this city and they have no room in their vision for us,'' says Makafili, a Turkmen politician. "It's like we've replaced Saddam with the Kurds."

For Said, squatting in fetid conditions with about 250 other families under the eaves of the municipal soccer stadium, it's time for the wrongs of the past to be righted. "Kirkuk is an integral part of Kurdistan. The Arabs should go now, so we can take their places."

The Kurdish interest in Kirkuk is tied to their brinkmanship in the Governing Council over the issue of federalism. Kurds would like Iraq's 18 multiethnic and religious governorates to be redrawn into five or so smaller provinces along ethnic and religious lines, and for these provinces to have substantial autonomy.

Most of Iraq's other groups are mistrustful of this plan. "This is a first step towards their declaration of independence,'' says Makafili. "They're manipulating the Americans for their own ends."

Though Kurdish political leaders say they just want their rights to be protected within Iraq, and US officials have been appealing to Kurdish leaders to reduce their demands for full autonomy, worried that it could undermine Iraq's long-term stability.

Last week, at least six people were killed in ethnic clashes in the city - mostly Turkmens and Arabs at the hands of well-armed and organized Kurd militias. In late August, at least 10 were killed in similar incidents.

The tensions in the city have many sources, from Kirkuk's proximity to one of the world's richest oil fields, to the waves of demographic change that swept over the city in the 20th century, to the fears held by small ethnic groups like the Turkmens that they will be marginalized.

Where they intersect is the long, often-violent Kurdish struggle to carve out an ethnic homeland in northern Iraq. In the decolonization process in the early 20th century, the Kurds and their distinct language and culture were split between Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. Separatist movements exist in all three countries to this day.

After the US imposed the no-fly zone to protect the Kurds in Northern Iraq following the first Gulf War, the two principal Kurdish political parties - the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdish Democratic Party - not only consolidated their hold over the area, but strengthened and expanded their armed forces.

Their guerrillas, the peshmerga or "the ones who face death," were the only Iraqi force to participate in the US invasion of Iraq last spring, and were left largely in control of the autonomous north. They served as forward spotters for US artillery and quickly translated their good ties with the US into political facts on the ground.

As probably the best-organized political groups in Iraq outside Hussein's Baath Party, they quickly moved beyond those borders. In the turmoil of postinvasion Baghdad, Kurdish fighters with lists of Baath Party buildings and houses controlled by Hussein's security apparatus fanned out into the city, seizing some of the choicest buildings for new party offices.

They did likewise in Kirkuk, seizing government museums, old British forts, and the former Baath Party headquarters. The city's new police is dominated by ethnic Kurds, the new mayor is a Kurd, and peshmerga move freely in the city.

After last week's violence, news wires reported that US forces raided both the PUK and KDP offices and seized weapons. But officials at both offices deny they were raided, and dozens of men at both locations still bristle with weapons.

"Our American friends visited us, but they didn't take anything,'' says Aziz Sharif, a scarred old peshmerga with spare clips for his AK-47 strapped to his chest. "Our relations with the Americans are still very good."

Nevertheless, coalition officials say the US has been consistently distancing itself from the Kurds, and point out that the local council created for the city has substantial representation from all sides.

The Kurdish parties are now lobbying for Kirkuk to be incorporated into what they hope will remain a mostly autonomous region once a new constitution is written. "Kirkuk has been and always will be part of Kurdistan,'' says Irzgar Ali, a former guerrilla who is now a PUK leader in the city. "Some of our Iraqi brothers don't want to read the real history."

"Real" history, as in conflict zones throughout the world, varies according to the source. Arabs estimate they make up 50 percent of the city's population, Kurds think they're probably 60 percent or more, and some Turkmen claim their numbers amount to about 70 percent. The last reliable census was taken in the 1950s.

All sides refer to the distant past to bolster their claims on Kirkuk, and deny the other sides' grievances. Many Turkmen say, for instance, that the brutal and well-documented campaign Hussein waged against the Kurds in the late 1980s, which included the deadly gassing of 5,000 people in Halabja, is grossly exaggerated.

Perhaps the most vulnerable community in town are the ethnic Arabs. Amar Abdullah, a young grocer in the Arab neighborhood of Khadamiha, says his family came from Nasariyah, in the south, in 1987. "All these other groups in the city, they're just like gangs now, swaggering around with their guns,'' he says. "But they won't be able to kick us out. We'll defend our homes."

Mr. Ali of the PUK wants the Arabs who were brought to the city by Hussein to return to the south. His party estimates about 160,000 of them remain. Asked if he would accept a decision by the Governing Council or a future elected Iraqi government to leave the city outside the Kurdish sphere of influence, he shakes his head. "It's not up to them to decide. The only ones who can decide the fate of Kirkuk are the members of the Kurdish parliament."

That's not how Lutfia Turmali, an official with the Iraqi Turkmen Party, sees it. "Kirkuk has to remain part of Iraq. The Kurds have no right to dictate this. This city has always been a Turkmen city."

Tied up in the animosity is a centuries-old cultural battle. When the Turks ran the Ottoman Empire out of what is now Turkey, the Kurds were the oppressed minority. Turkey remains deeply suspicious of Iraq's Kurds and the impact their parties could have on Turkey's own restive Kurdish minority.

Turkmen view the empire as their salad days; a poster displaying portraits of Ottoman caliphs going back 1,000 years is prominently posted in Kirkuk's main Turkmen cultural center.

Though Kurdish leaders say they just want their rights protected, it's easy to see why men like Makafili are suspicious. Kurdish national flags outnumber Iraqi ones in Kirkuk these days, and many Kurds speak longingly of independence.

Haziz Kirkuki, a former peshmerga, is now a journalist with a PUK newspaper. "Being a peshmerga was an honor. It would have been easy to die for my country,'' he says. What country is that? "Kurdistan."

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