Iraq's Kirkuk faces uncertainty without
November 16, 2011
KIRKUK, Iraq's border with Kurdistan region,
— In Iraq's northern oil city Kirkuk, home to a
volatile mix of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen,
politicians and residents fear a possible explosion
of ethnic conflict when American troops leave.
With prospects that U.S. forces will leave Iraq by
December 31, the city turns uncertainly to Iraqi and
Kurdish security forces to keep the peace in an area
contested by Iraq's central government and
semi-autonomous northern Kurdistan.
"We do not trust the Iraqi forces' ability to
preserve security and order after the withdrawal of
American forces," said government worker Ibrahim
Mohammed, a Kurd. "Security will deteriorate at the
same speed as the withdrawal."
"I really hope this will not happen and American
forces will remain in Kirkuk. It is my wish for the
Kirkukis were among those Iraqis who argued most
vociferously for U.S. forces to stay past the
year-end deadline for their departure prescribed by
a 2008 bilateral security agreement. Officials had
lobbied publicly for an extension.
Even those who are fully behind the American
withdrawal fear potential problems in Kirkuk, which
sits atop some of the world's biggest oil reserves.
Nearly a quarter of Iraq's oil exports come from the
fields around Kirkuk.
A man (R) wearing a Kurdish costume buys turkeys at
a market in central Kirkuk, November 5, 2011. Kurds have a strong cultural and emotional
attachment to Kirkuk, which they call "the Kurdish
Jerusalem." Kurds see it as the rightful and
perfect capital of an autonomous Kurdistan state.
Last month the region shipped an average of 460,000
barrels per day, 22 percent of Iraq's total exports.
U.S. military officials long ago marked the city as
a likely flashpoint for future conflict.
"What do we gain from America's democracy? Violence,
sectarian divisions...," said Munaf Abdulla, a
restaurant owner and an Arab,www.ekurd.net
but added: "Kirkuk is a volatile area, vulnerable to
explosion because of the problems ... over control
of its fortune."
With Iraq's central government in Baghdad and the
Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil both claiming
Kirkuk, a census to determine whether the city has a
Kurdish or Arab majority that might have backed up
one or the other's claims has been repeatedly
Arabs and Turkmen accuse Kurds of flooding the city
with their kin. Kurds say dictator Saddam Hussein "Arabised"
Kirkuk by encouraging Arabs to move there in the
1980s and 1990s.
While Kurdistan says it has historic rights to the
city, Kirkuk is officially outside the three
northern provinces that comprise the region. Iraqi
security forces, and not the Kurdish peshmerga army,
have the responsibility to protect it.
Kurdish president Masoud Barzani, in a visit to
Kirkuk in late October, promised local politicians
and residents that the city would be properly
protected when U.S. troops leave.
"We will not allow for terrorists to believe that
Kirkuk has become an open field," he said.
Whether Kirkuk will prove to be a time bomb depends
on who you ask.
"I don't think security will be set back with the
departure of the Americans from the city," said
Brigadier General Samir Abdul Kareem, an Iraqi army
commander. "We have been handling the city for the
past four months without any problems."
Other security officials were less optimistic,
"I can't say we can completely control security in
Kirkuk after the pullout," said Brigadier Halou
Najat, a Kurdish peshmerga commander. "The success
of keeping Kirkuk stable will depend on the
cooperation between security forces in the city."
An experimental force of Kurdish peshmerga, Iraqi
army and Iraqi police, part of an effort spearheaded
by the United States to get the two sides to
cooperate, now helps patrol Kirkuk.
Yaseen al-Bakri, a political science professor at
al-Nahrain University, said the coming withdrawal
could lead to rival factions taking advantage of the
confusion to achieve their own ends.
In addition to the dispute between Erbil and Baghdad
over the city and its oil wealth, Kirkuk is rife
with competing property claims stretching back over
"It is certain that the Arab-Kurdish conflict will
worsen, because after the U.S. withdraws, everyone
will think it is a time to collect their spoils ...
in the absence of a policeman who was able to
prevent some of the parties from exceeding their
bounds," Bakri said.
As in the rest of Iraq, violence in Kirkuk has
dropped sharply since the sectarian slaughter that
killed tens of thousands across the country in
2006-07. But the city continues to be plagued by
insurgent attacks and kidnapping-for-ransom by
militants looking for money to fund operations.
"I say with total fear for the future, we don't want
the U.S. forces to walk out of Iraq, at least at
this time. We don't want to see our country slip
once again towards sectarian war," said government
worker Ibrahim Kareem, 45, an Arab.
"I see we are moving towards a catastrophic
situation. This is an explicit fact: Iraqi forces
have failed to end the violence, killing and
"Speaking reasonably," said Ahmed al-Askari, a
Kurdish member of the Kirkuk provincial council,
"American forces must stay longer to train Iraqi
forces ... With the current performance of the
forces in Kirkuk, I can see trouble in the future in
Other residents argue the long U.S. presence in the
area has made little difference, and believe
Kirkuk's tensions lie less with residents or
security forces than in political turf battles over
control of the disputed city and its untapped
"Every day we witness explosions, assassinations and
kidnappings... all these events occur with the
presence of U.S. forces and Iraqi ones," said Ahmed
Hassan, the Turkmen owner of a car parts shop.
"We want Iraqi government to take real measures to
maintain (security). This issue has nothing to do
with the presence or withdrawal of American forces.
I believe Iraqi stability depends on cooperation
among political parties."
By Mustafa Mahmoud - Reuters
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