The northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk sits atop vast oil reserves, but it also seethes with ethnic tensions, writes Nermeen Al-Mufti from Baghdad
Kirkuk -- a city floating on a river of oil and wealth and a potential cornerstone of a future "Kurdish state" -- is not much to look at these days. Scenes of destruction and poverty abound. Street peddlers are everywhere. Garbage is heaped high wherever you turn. Shops selling used clothes and used kitchen appliances are now common in a city that was once immaculately clean. This destruction was not just caused by the military conflict.
The now-ousted regime had ordered the old city districts to be rebuilt over two decades ago. Entire areas were razed but not rebuilt. Parking lots and garbage dumps are all that are left of once populated areas. Today's Kirkuk is home to make-shift camps bearing various flags, housing separate ethnic groups. The Kurds camp out at the unfinished Olympic stadium, the returning Turkomans at another area and the Arabs at a third -- this is a city which was once ethnically harmonious.
Last week the streets of Kirkuk continued to be the scene of demonstrations organised by proponents of Kurdish independence who threatened to boycott the national elections- due in January 2005- if the city was not annexed to Kurdistan Iraq.
Last week's demonstrations promoted some Iraqi observers to believe that the city is poised for bloodshed. The Kurds are determined to make Kirkuk part of Iraqi Kurdistan -- a major Kurdish leader, Masoud Barzani, stating that they are "ready to fight for Kirkuk". While Jalal Talabani, the other key Kurdish leader, refrained from comment, prompting accusations of betrayal, he is by no means unsupportive. His party has supervised referendum activities in Al- Sulaymanyia in the first few weeks of the occupation and his men have been Kurdicising Kirkuk with a zeal surpassing that with which Saddam's men once sought to Arabise it. Talabani is now letting Barzani take a backseat in the ethnic game, but only after having done his share.
Although other Kurdish leaders, such as Kamal Kirkukli of the Political Bureau of the Kurdistan National Party, are adamant that a Kurdish Kirkuk "is immutable and irreversible", this view is contested by many non-Kurdish Iraqis. Faruq Abdallah Abdel-Rahman, chairman of the Turkoman Front and member of the National Council, speaks for many, stating that "Kirkuk belongs to all nationalities, to Arabs and Turkomans, Kurds and Christians, although it is Turkoman in culture and identity."
Sheikh Ghassan Muzhir Al-Asi, leader of the Arab Alliance in Kirkuk, states that "the Kurds have taken control of Kirkuk after the occupation. They have forced the Arabs to leave their villages and cities. They have engaged in policies of oppression, repression, and detention. They also sent more than 100,000 Kurds to Kirkuk on the pretext that they had been forcibly deported by the deposed regime."
In a peaceful protest against Kurdish demands, the City Council of the Salah Al-Din province held a conference concluding that "Kirkuk is for all Iraqis." They were also concerned over "multiple violations of all rules and regulations, particularly of the interim law for the administration of the state, by Kurdish organisations and influential parties in Kirkuk".
This was felt to be directly linked to "actions being taken to upset the [city's] demographic balance and impose a new status quo promoting the ambitions and goals of Kurdish parties with regard to the annexation of Kirkuk to the Kurdistan region."
The Salah Al-Din province is directly involved in the Kirkuk tug-of-war because of its proximity to Kurdish areas. Tribal allegiances are divided across the borders between Salah Al-Din and Iraqi Kurdistan. While sponsors of the above- mentioned conference claimed that they had coordinated the event with the multinational forces, Deputy Prime Minister for security affairs, Burham Saleh, an ethnic Kurd, asked the conference organisers to call off the event, a request they turned down. The conference was attended by both independent and party-affiliated Arab and Turkoman officials as well as Arab tribal leaders.
Eager to gain international support, Kurdish leaders, including Barzani and Talabani, have sent a letter to President Bush reminding him of the fact that the Kurds had fought alongside US forces.
Saadeddin Arkij, chairman of the Turkoman Iraqi Council, spoke on the subject. "If Kirkuk is Kurdish, as Barzani claims, why fight over it? The identity of any city, I believe, is not something that is imposed by force... Barzani is acting conceitedly because he knows that some people support him and take his side," Arkij told Al- Ahram Weekly. He was referring to a recent visit by UK foriegn minister Jack Straw and the repeated visits by US officials to Kirkuk and northern Iraq.
"Kirkuk has a Turkoman identity and culture. All historical references support this claim. But throughout our struggle, we have never resorted to arms. We fly the Iraqi flag higher than the Turkoman on our party offices. We will find a way to defend ourselves and our culture," Arkij added.
The 1957 census bears witness to Turkoman claims, but Arkij does not mention it until prompted. "In the past, when we referred to this census, which proves that Kirkuk is Turkoman, the Kurds would have nothing to say. Now, this census does not bother them at all, for they can tamper with the records. They have destroyed all the official records concerning demography and real estate, through looting and arson of government offices. This happened the day Kirkuk was occupied, on 10 April 2003. We have other evidence, the cemeteries for example, which they are now trying to destroy. Most of the cemeteries in Kirkuk are Turkoman. If the city used to have as many Kurdish inhabitants as they claim, where were they buried," Arkij said to the Weekly.
Kirkuk looks calm, but a night curfew is still in force. Attempts to change the city's demographics continue with dozens of Turkoman, Arab and Kurdish leaders having been assassinated since the occupation. Suicide attacks have also taken place. Kirkuk is putting on an air of calm and composure in Ramadan, but one can feel the underlying tension.
Kirkuk inhabitants wish that the Americans and other outsiders would reduce their support for the Kurds. Iden Hamid, a retired Turkoman teacher, says he is surprised to see the Kurds accuse the Turkomans of being Turkish agents. "This is nonsense. We may look up to Turkey as an older brother, but our allegiance is to Iraq. The Kurds, meanwhile, boast that they helped the Americans invade the country, and have turned north Iraq into a foreign base. Who are the agents now?"
Another war may be around the corner in Kirkuk, a city whose future is even more uncertain than that of the rest of Iraq. Kirkuk was Iraq's most immaculate and beautiful city -- its wealth a sign of hope. This same wealth has just turned into a curse.