The Cloud Over Kirkuk

The drive east from the safe haven of Erbil, the Kurdish capital of northern Iraq, into the contested city of Kirkuk, is typically a spooky one. To the north, stands a chain of crumbling forts left over from the Iran-Iraq war; the Hamreen mountains to the south are practically deserted save for a series of sentry posts silhouetted along the ridge line. And waiting straight ahead at the gates of Kirkuk is a natural gas flare, an eternal flame that the locals call Babagurgur, which is the symbol of this oil-rich city.

Not that I saw any of this Monday. In the two years since I first visited, Kirkuk has increasingly become a target of insurgent attack. That necessitated my spending the duration of the two-hour trip lying on the back seat of my car, escorted by a team of Kurdish peshmerga soldiers, and trying to stay out of sight.

But the action was elsewhere in the city: A pair of car bombs and three roadside bombs killed 18 people in Kirkuk the day I was there. Last month, a truck bomb in the same area killed 137 people. “By no means does this happen every day,” said Colonel Patrick Stackpole, who commands 3,000 soldiers from 25th Infantry Division at Forward Operating Base Warrior on the city’s aging Saddam-era airport. “But at the same time, I don’t want to call it unusual.”

Recently, Stackpole ordered his troops to set up checkpoints and patrols south of Kirkuk, hoping to ensure that insurgents pushed out of Baghdad by the new security push don’t take refuge here.

Still, the violence in this city of about 1 million people hasn’t reached a level comparable with Baghdad. Particularly significant is the absence of sectarian strife. The Sunni insurgents operating here tend to target the city’s government and political institutions, as well as U.S. and local security forces. There have been relatively few mass-casualty terror attacks that spark reprisal killings as they have done in other parts of Iraq.

The absence of a civil war dynamic may be surprising, because Kirkuk — with its mixed population of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen all claiming ownership of the city — has always been identified as a potential powder keg. Saddam’s regime had consciously sought to “Arabize” the city by driving out a large number of its Kurdish majority and moving in Arabs from the south. Ethnic tensions have flared as Kurds are demanding the “return” of the oil-rich city to their control. (The largely autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government runs most of Kurdish northern Iraq, but Kirkuk is currently administered by the central government in Baghdad.) Those tensions are likely to escalate in the coming months, with a referendum on the city’s status to be held by the end of 2007.

So far, though, the city’s leaders and institutions — especially the police force — have been willing to work together. That may be in part because Kirkuk’s residents are among the most cosmopolitan in Iraq. It’s not unusual for a Kirkuki from any one of the city’s three main ethnic groups to speak the languages of the other two. So, civil society survives in Kirkuk, and people are still out on the streets of the city trying to live as normal. And government services still clunk along: Kirkuk has electricity for about half the day, a major achievement considering that even peaceful Iraqi Kurdistan has just a few hours.

All of this has been achieved without much help from Baghdad, which, with a barely functioning government and security problems of its own, hampers most important decisions by sheer inertia. U.S. reconstruction officials working in the city explained that projects costing over $1 million require Baghdad’s approval even when the money and the management comes from the U.S. or local government, and that getting the necessary ministerial signature can take as much as six weeks, even for such critical services as waste removal.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki has promised Kurdish leaders, his partners in Iraq’s ruling coalition, that Kirkuk will be “normalized” before the referendum, meaning that Kurds forced out under Saddam would have their property restored, and Arabs moved in by his regime would be resettled in the south. Such a massive exercise in social engineering might strain the political system of the most tranquil country, but Iraq hasn’t even begun the process. Fearing an upsurge in violence, a growing number of voices in the West, including the bipartisan Iraq Study Group in the U.S., have urged a delay in deciding the status of Kirkuk.

But more inertia is the last thing Kirkuk needs. What it needs is leadership from Baghdad, so that the leaders of Kirkuk can begin the process while they still have a functioning government. In Iraq, nature abhors a vacuum, and fills it with jihadis.

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