U.S. News & World Report
December 25, 2006

This Land Is My Land

The big stakes--and bubbling tensions--over who will control Iraq's oil capital

By Anna Mulrine

KIRKUK, IRAQ--There are signs throughout this oil-rich city that after a decades-long diaspora, the Kurds are returning. In Kurdish neighborhoods, new homes are going up left and right, and graffiti classifieds on the walls near busy thoroughfares advertise scarce real estate for those who can afford it; those who can't squat in bombed-out military bases and office buildings. The soccer stadium is a makeshift camp filled with hundreds of Kurdish refugees who are, as described by U.S. military officials, "in a holding pattern."

What, exactly, they're waiting for is at the heart of a high-stakes tug of war that is ratcheting up tensions in advance of a 2007 referendum here--a constitutionally mandated vote that will determine whether or not Kirkuk becomes part of the Kurdish regional government to the north. The prize is a diverse land that is big money for the rest of the country: Kirkuk's oil fields are the largest and potentially most productive in the country, accounting for close to half of Iraq's oil exports and roughly 6 percent of all Mideast oil reserves. It is a vote that many expect will be a flashpoint, with plenty of jockeying for position among Kirkuk's rival political parties and ethnic groups. "We'll have to be on our guard," Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, tells U.S. News. "Tension will certainly be high."

"Second fiddle." That tension was evident here last week, when some 2,000 Kurds marched through the city to protest recommendations from the Iraq Study Group that the referendum be postponed. "Given the very dangerous situation in Kirkuk," the report reads, "a referendum on the future of Kirkuk ... would be explosive and should be delayed." The Kurds were not pleased, and Kurdish regional government head Massoud Barzani, long a U.S. ally, became the first Iraqi official to come out against the study, warning that any delay in the vote would lead to "grave consequences." Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, issued a statement backing Barzani. It was a development closely watched by U.S. officials largely because, in the words of one American official, "the Kurds have the power to bring down the government."

Forced to flee the land in a brutal campaign of "Arabization" launched by Saddam Hussein in the 1970s, Kurds here are adamant that the region around Kirkuk is their birthright. But opposition party critics charge that Arabs and Turkmens are being forced out of the region in what they characterize as a campaign of Kurdish intimidation. "The situation is getting worse," Rakan Saaid, an Arab provincial council member in Kirkuk, tells U.S. News. "We have seen random raids, property damage, and detainees--picked up for no reason-moved to northern jails." Arabs and Turkmens also protest that new Kurdish arrivals here--many of whom, they say, have no previous ties to Kirkuk--are being lured in large part by funds doled out by Kurdish political parties to ensure that they have the votes they need to win the referendum.

Indeed, many Arabs drawn here 30 years ago by promises of new lives and stable jobs say that they do not want to leave--particularly when that means relocating to more violent regions in Iraq. "My kids were born here," says one Arab shop owner in a mixed neighborhood downtown. "I want to stay." Simply and politely--but repeatedly--Kurds insist that Arabs living in homes that once belonged to Kurds really don't have a choice. Some 7,000 Arab families--which U.S. officials say amounts to roughly 50,000 people--have already expressed a willingness to pack up and go, Kurdish spokesmen point out. "The Arabs have to realize that they got their privileges on the backs of the Kurdish people," says Kirkuk's Provincial Council Chairman Rizgar Ali Hamajan. "How would you feel if you go back to your country, and someone from Canada is living in your house?" American officials worry that more heated conflicts over homes could erupt in the coming months. Asks Col. Patrick Stackpole, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 25th Infantry Division in Kirkuk: "What is this tension going to look like when people decide not to go? We solve that on a case-by-case basis. It's concerning, of course."]

For these reasons, U.S. military officials are keeping an increasingly close eye on Kirkuk. "How long can the rest of the country continue to play second fiddle to Baghdad?" asks one senior U.S. official in the embattled Iraqi capital. "There are some big cities up there [in northern Iraq], and you can't keep on ignoring them forever."

Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, who last week took the reins as the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq--was responsible for Kirkuk on a previous tour. "We've got to pay close attention to it," he tells U.S. News. "It's got the oil, and it's always been very representative of Iraq itself." U.S. military officials here agree, and add a note of caution. "This place is a powder keg," says one.

"Pretty not good." In the office of Kirkuk Province Gov. Abdul Rahman Mustafa, among the more prominently displayed objects is a painting, just to the left of his desk. It is an abstract portrait of a mother lying on the ground, cradling her baby. Both are dead. It is a ubiquitous item in Kurdish party offices here, a reminder of the slaughter that Kurds suffered at the hands of Saddam Hussein-a stark warning that they plan never to let it happen again.

Today, Mustafa describes the security situation here as "not too bad, but pretty not good." He has survived multiple assassination attempts, most recently when a suicide bomber wearing an explosives-laden vest threw himself on the hood of his car--the work, he believes, of Syrian-backed insurgents. It is one of many assassination attempts that this city sees each month. The soccer stadium, filled with Kurdish refugees, has been hit by mortars repeatedly, and car bombs are a daily fear among U.S. soldiers patrolling the city streets.

What's more, there are indications as well that members of the Mahdi Army militia--known as the Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM)--have been moving into town to back the city's Shiite Arab communities. "We're very sensitive to JAM presence here," says Colonel Stackpole. Shiites, who make up the majority in the oil-rich southern part of Iraq, tend to have less opposition to federal control of regions than the Sunnis, who stand to be largely disenfranchised with their populations centered in the west, with no oil resources. "For the most part, they [Mahdi Army] are coming to reassure [Shiite Arabs] that they are going to be protected, that JAM is going to look out for their interests," he adds. "It's a toe in the water to make sure the population they represent up here isn't being mistreated, and no more than that. It hasn't been a concern for me yet."

What is a concern among Iraqi and some U.S. military officials here is the lack of speed with which the central government in Baghdad--led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki--is making decisions that would allow Kirkuk to move forward on its referendum vote, a decision wrapped up in a clause of the Constitution known as Article 140.

"Double faces." It was Article 140 that brought the Kurds to the table in the first place, when Kurdish politicians agreed to support the prime minister in exchange for the guarantee of a vote to determine whether Kirkuk would become part of the Kurdish regional government. In advance of that vote, the first order of business called for in the article is a phase referred to as "normalization," which is taken to include the resolution of property disputes--namely, houses. That includes bringing Kurds back to their ancestral homes. "Arabs will be compensated, treated very respectfully--and moved," says Mustafa. "It is not forcing or kicking them out of Kirkuk, but moving them back to their homes." Normalization is to be followed by a census and a referendum.

But the normalization process, controlled by the government in Baghdad, is moving slowly, and lately, some Kurdish government officials here have protested that the committee charged with reviewing housing disputes is packed with former Baathists intentionally dragging their heels because they don't want to see the oil-rich lands fall under Kurdish control. "Maliki is definitely appointing people who are going to slow down and not accelerate the process," says a U.S. official in Kirkuk.

This in turn has raised charges that Maliki is reneging on some key promises. "I don't mean to blame [Maliki]," says Hamajan. "But he should be more loyal. We do not have to have double faces, and we hope he does not try to cheat himself and others." Hamajan and others are also upset at the central budget-allocation figures that recently came from Baghdad--"other cities are getting much more, but we have a bigger population," he says. "Why are they marginalizing Kirkuk? Maybe they do not want us to be successful." Says one U.S. military official here, "We're lacking a lot of direction from Baghdad."

To date, there have been over 40,000 housing cases filed under the Article 140 normalization act. Some 3,500 have been adjudicated. Of those, almost all are under appeal, says Navy Capt. Bob Muro, provincial reconstruction deputy team leader for Kirkuk. Only about 1,000 cases have actually been settled. "They're getting bogged down in Baghdad," he says.

This all has people wondering whether normalization needs to be completed before a population census and, following that, the vote on whether Kirkuk will become part of the Kurdish regional government. Some, however, would rather see the whole process put off. "It would be a good idea to delay the vote until 2008," says a Turkmen shop owner here. "If we try to do it right now, it will make a lot of problems." There is evidence that Turkey--which fears the possible evolution of an independent Kurdistan--has also provided Turkmen groups here with cash and weapons, according to U.S. officials. (Turkmens make up roughly 20 percent of the population of Kirkuk, according to U.S. military estimates.) Turkmen protesters demonstrating against the referendum have repeatedly marched on the government center.

For now, Arab and Turkmen officials have pulled out of the provincial council and say they will not return until they have equal representation on the council, which includes primarily Kurdish legislators--and until what they characterize as harassment ceases. Ali Mahdi Sadiq, a Turkmen deputy political chief in the provincial council, says that over 100 Turkmens were kidnapped--with $15 million in ransom paid out--last year by Kurdish militias. The Iraqi Army units here, they say, are made up primarily of Kurds, including the 3rd Iraqi Army Brigade, which is entirely Kurdish and includes many former soldiers of the Peshmerga, the well-trained Kurdish militia that helped U.S. Special Forces win Kirkuk in 2003.

While U.S. military officials are closely monitoring the area for ethnic cleansing, they add that they have seen little evidence of it. "You do hear anecdotally of a threat every now and then," says Stackpole. "But there is no consistent activity to see there's planning around it." Mixon adds that "there may be some movement among the Arabs that's going on because they see the handwriting on the wall, but I haven't seen anything to believe that there's some force moving them out of Kirkuk."

But there remain concerns that such charges are difficult to prove. "The Kurds certainly resort to violent means, murders or whatever it happens to be, significantly less than the Sunni and Shia, but that doesn't mean they're not doing it at all," says one senior U.S. military official. "The circumstances are in their favor that they can pick and choose and be very discreet about it." Capt. Robert Wolfe, company commander in the 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment, assigned to Kirkuk, says that nearly all of the detainees brought in by Iraqi security forces in this region are Arab. "Arabs get the raw end of the deal a lot, because the Kurds are working with us," says Wolfe. "I say, 'Look, man, I'm happy to arrest Kurds if they are terrorists.' But the Arabs never give us anything."

One recent bid to improve the city's security was a 9-mile-long trench. Some 3 feet wide and 6 feet deep, it was designed to funnel traffic from the south through checkpoints. Security has improved since it was dug, U.S. military officials say, with the number of car bombs down dramatically. But this move, too, has inflamed tensions here. Many Arabs see the trench as designed to keep them out--a charge the Kurds deny. U.S. officials were mildly surprised when work on the trench started, since they were never consulted. "At this point," says Stackpole, "if they decide to put in a trench--they normally coordinate, but they don't have to ask us anymore."

American provincial reconstruction members are working hard to stabilize the area through public works, including sewage and water projects that they hope will sustain themselves after U.S. troops leave and lower tensions stemming from Arab charges that they are being denied services by the Kurdish-led government. Says one U.S. official: "You definitely see fewer services in the Arab areas."

A "confidence bridge." The stakes will only rise here as the government grapples with its hydrocarbon laws, which will determine how profits from new oil discoveries will be divided. The Iraq Study Group recommends sharing the wealth, dividing oil profits by regional population. The Kurds insist that money from any new oil finds in the north will belong to the Kurdish regional government. "How they share the oil--by region, by provinces, purely central government-has a big impact on the stakes of the referendum," says Stackpole. "If they say all the oil, no matter what, is going to be centralized through Baghdad, it'll be less of a prize to winning the referendum."

The Kurds say they remain confident that the oil revenue in the north will be theirs to control--and are confident of the outcome of any vote. The city, with its estimated population of 1 million, is thought to be currently about 43 percent Kurdish and 35 percent Arab. But Kurdish politicos warn that things could get ugly should anything get in the way of the vote next year.

"We'd like to build a 'confidence bridge' between the people and the government," says Mustafa. "But not implementing the referendum means the damage of that bridge. And that," he adds, "will have very bad and negative consequences on the people."

U.S. military officials here say they are uncertain whether the vote will move ahead or be delayed. But both possibilities come with at least short-term pain. "Either way," says one U.S. military official, "it'll be ugly here for a while."