KIRKUK, Iraq — While President Barack Obama prepares to announce that he's sending tens of thousands more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, his problems in Iraq are far from over.
Military casualties have plummeted and sectarian violence has ebbed in Iraq, but the country's power struggles among Sunni and Shiite Muslim Arabs and between Arabs and Kurds are unfinished. The question is whether it will turn violent again.
The combatants appear to be repositioning themselves in anticipation of the planned U.S. combat troop withdrawal next year. Iraq's neighbors — Iran, Turkey, Syria and others — could try to fill the vacuum, politicians and analysts warn.
"Those who feel their rights have been taken, and the weak, will ask the help of anyone who can give them a hand," said Burhan Muzhir al Asy. He's a tribal sheik and a member of the northern city of Kirkuk's provincial council representing Arab citizens, who've suffered political and demographic setbacks here since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. "We say, 'A drowning man will grasp at a straw.' "
Many Iraqis say they think that U.S. attention already is waning.
"The Obama administration is different. ... They're just watching," said Dleir Ahmad Hamad, the political science dean at Suleimaniyah University in Iraqi Kurdistan.
"There are big fears" about the U.S. troop withdrawal, he said. "I do not exclude the occurrence of a civil war, between Kurd and Kurd, between Arab and Kurd, between Shiite and Sunni, between Turk and Kurd."
Rigs and gas flares ring Kirkuk, the capital of an oil-rich region, and its outskirts look like a chunk of Texas or Oklahoma. It anchors a broad belt of disputed territory, running from Diyala province in the east through Mosul — Iraq's most dangerous city — in the northwest.
The city and the surrounding province are a minefield of conflicting property claims, unresolved lawsuits by the tens of thousands and clashing ethnic narratives.
The late dictator Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Arab, encouraged Arabs from elsewhere in Iraq to settle in Kirkuk to reinforce his hold on the area, displacing Kurds and Turkomen. When Saddam's regime fell, hundreds of thousands of Kurds flooded in. Many are returnees, and some are said to be carpetbaggers. Kurdish neighborhoods with a just-built look now line the northern approaches to the city.
Disagreements over who belongs in Kirkuk and who can vote here half delayed the Iraqi parliament's passage of a law mandating elections next year. Even if an accord is finally reached, the elections will be postponed beyond January. Even then, however, no one will be satisfied with the compromise, in which 2009 Kirkuk voter rolls will be used but will be checked by a fact-finding committee whose work won't be completed for a year.
Political killings and other violence have been sporadic of late. Kirkukis express hopes for an American-style melting pot of the region's cultures and say they worry most about extremist hotheads in their midst or the machinations of outsiders.
A Balkans-style ethnic slaughter "will not happen in Kirkuk. We will not kill each other," said Najat Hussein Hassan, a Turkoman provincial council member whose office is draped with posters of Shiite Muslim leaders. He's also a representative of a major Shiite political party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.
After the U.S. military leaves Iraq, however, Hassan said, "I give the balance 70 percent to 80 percent that things will go back to the hands of extremists. And maybe some will want to take risks, take chances."
Hassan was referring to officials of the Kurdistan Regional Government, headquartered in the northern city of Irbil, who'd like to squeeze Kirkuk into their semiautonomous northern region. By contrast, Kirkuk's Arabs see their protection as coming from the central government in Baghdad, which is just what the Kurds fear. Iran, which at times has played an active role in Iraqi politics, lies just to the east. Even in Turkey, some right-wing politicians lay claim to Kirkuk and say they'll be protecting Turkomen's rights.
Obama and American military commanders hope that Iraq will be stable and at least partly healed when the U.S. completes its troop withdrawal by the end of 2011.
The U.S. and U.N. plan a major push to ease tensions in the disputed areas after Iraq's parliamentary elections, assuming they take place by early March, as now seems likely.
A senior Obama administration official said Monday that the post-election bargaining to form a new Iraqi government, which could take months, would be an opportune time for diplomacy. The official spoke only on the condition of anonymity as the official wasn't authorized to talk on the record. "That period will be critical. ... We'll be deeply engaged," the official said.
The United States has leverage "irrespective of whether we have 100,000 troops on the ground or 100," the official said, including Iraq's desire for American security training and for better relations with Sunni-dominated Arab neighbors such as Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally.
A report this summer by the private International Crisis Group warned that there's little time left for American mediation. If the attempt fails, Iraqi groups "could seek outside protection, thus potentially regionalizing the conflict," the report said.
Those most worried are the Kurds, whose semiautonomous region was protected by the U.S. during the last dozen years of Saddam's rule. In 2003, with Saddam's regime falling, Kurdish military forces, known as the peshmerga, moved south into areas such as Kirkuk.
After Iraqi army troops and peshmerga forces nearly came to blows last spring, Army Gen. Raymond Odierno, the commander of American forces in Iraq, proposed joint patrols by the two armies, under U.S. supervision. The patrols have yet to begin.
Sheikh Jaafar Sheikh Mustafa, the minister of the peshmerga, told McClatchy that the Kurdish regional government has accepted Odierno's plan, but with reservations. However, he ruled out pulling back from the tense front-line region around Mosul.
"We will not withdraw one step, under any pressure, or any threat, or any request," Sheikh Jaafar said in an interview in Irbil, the Kurdish regional government's capital. "Solve the problems, we will withdraw the troops."
He said the American troop withdrawal "represents a great threat ... especially (without) solving the problems existing in Iraq. The government is not yet stable."
Hamad, the political science dean, concurred. It would take a U.S. troop commitment of five or six more years to make Iraq "a normal state," he said.
(McClatchy special correspondent Mohammed al Dulaimy contributed to this article from Kirkuk.)
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