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Tensions Feared As U.S. Leaves Disputed Iraqi City

Iraqi soldiers take part in a graduation parade in Kirkuk on Monday. The oil-rich city is a mix of Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and others. Its future status is a source of tension within Iraq.
Marwan Ibrahim
AFP/Getty Images
Iraqi soldiers take part in a graduation parade in Kirkuk on Monday. The oil-rich city is a mix of Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and others. Its future status is a source of tension within Iraq.

As American troops leave Iraq, the one place in the country that's most likely to erupt into violence, at least in the short term, is the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

The city is a complicated ethnic mix of Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and others. The question of whether it belongs to the autonomous Kurdish region in the north or to the Arab-dominated central government of Baghdad has long been a point of contention.

Until a few weeks ago, a U.S. military base operated in Kirkuk; the Americans were thought to be mediators of some sort. That relationship was tested last month when the U.S. was preparing to leave the base. As with hundreds of other American bases that have closed in Iraq in recent weeks, the U.S. signed the Kirkuk base over to the Iraqi military. But when the predominately Arab army prepared to enter the base, the predominantly Kurdish police force blocked the entrance.

'I Felt That That Was The End'

Kurdish journalist Kavez Mela Pervez disguised himself in a police uniform and sneaked into the base that day. He says the six-hour standoff at one point got so heated that both sides drew their guns.

"At that moment, I felt that that was the end," he said through a translator. "And that was not only me who felt this way. Actually, many of those who were around me felt this way, too."

The problem, Pervez says, is that before the Americans came, the base was used by Saddam Hussein's army to expel, attack and kill Kurds. Most Kurds believe the base should be a civilian airport, as it was before Saddam.

The standoff is an illustration of the larger problem in Kirkuk. Kurds want to regain control of a city they say was once theirs. Arabs don't want to let go of a city that they settled in, at the encouragement of Saddam. Turkmen, Christians and other ethnic groups are caught somewhere in the middle.

In a market in the center of Kirkuk, most people are afraid to talk about the departure of the Americans and who could help Kurds and Arabs resolve their differences now that U.S. troops are leaving.

'We Will Not Leave'

One young Arab named Mustafa says his family was offered about $17,000 as part of a government program to move Arabs out of Kirkuk. But that wasn't enough.

"We have lived all our lives here," Mustafa said through a translator. "Even if the Kurds come and try to kick us out, we will not leave."

Just outside Kirkuk, though, it's no longer an option for Arabs to stay in a valley neatly divided into plots of grain.

Kurdish farmer Abdul Abdullah says Kurds are moving in for good whether it's legal or not.

American officials in Iraq insist that just because U.S. troops are leaving, it doesn't mean American diplomats can't still serve as mediators between Arabs and Kurds. After all, it was diplomats who intervened to ease the standoff at the U.S. base last month.

But Hassan Turan, a Turkman who heads the Kirkuk provincial council, says U.S. diplomats will be perceived differently, now that guns no longer back up their words.

"They have many people from the State Department, but their power in my opinion will be less, without the military," he said.

Kirkuk Residents Lack Voice

Turan was part of a group of Kirkuki leaders who'd agreed to meet outside Kirkuk, in an effort to bring leaders from different ethnic groups together. The conference was organized by a German foundation. The hope was that it's not just the Americans who can act as mediators.

Joost Hiltermann, the group moderator, is a longtime Iraq analyst for the International Crisis Group. He says the only way to resolve the larger question of what will happen with Kirkuk — the so-called status question — is if local politicians can sit down and figure out how to get along.

"Status has been an issue between the political parties, at the national level, and it shouldn't be," he said. "It should be very much in the hands of the people of Kirkuk itself. But the Kirkukis never had that kind of voice. They were divided. They took no decisions of their own; it was one against the other.

"This is changing. And I think that is really critically important for the future of Kirkuk."

Locally, leaders from the different ethnic groups are beginning to make decisions like how to provide electricity despite national shortages. At the national level, though, Hiltemann says, the question of status will remain unanswered for some time. And the fear, he says, is that the next time the guns are drawn, there will be nobody to stop what comes next.

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Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.