KIRKUK, Iraq—The children at the Shorja middle school in Kirkuk raise the flag and sing the anthem every morning—the Kurdistan flag and the Kurdish national anthem. There's not an Iraqi flag in sight.
"Look at our past, how red it is with blood," they sing. "Let no one say the Kurds are no more. They are here, and their flag never falls."
The Kurdish anthem, like the Kurdish past, is blood-soaked and dramatic, and many people in northern Iraq expect more bloodletting very soon. If there's going to be a civil war in Iraq—and many believe that's inevitable—the first cut, and the deepest, could well come in Kirkuk.
The U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority yields control of the Iraqi government on June 30, and the stability of the country, perhaps even the region, could be determined by what happens in oil-rich Kirkuk.
"The worry is that when we go, the political vacuum will get filled in a cataclysmic way," said Paul Harvey, the Kirkuk coordinator for the CPA.
The violence has already started. A spate of unsolved political murders has hit Kirkuk in recent weeks, and coalition officials now use bodyguards and armored cars at all times. The U.S. airbase has been taking light but regular mortar attacks, especially after Friday afternoon prayers.
Saboteurs also have blown up two pipelines in the last month, one of them an important export pipeline.
Kirkuk is a sprawling, dust-choked city of nearly 1 million people. It's made up of Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens and Assyrian Christians. The size of each community is a matter of hot debate. All but the Assyrians claim to be predominant.
The Kurds are Muslims, but they're neither Arab nor Persian. They're a separate ethnic group with their own language and customs. Most of the estimated 4.5 million Iraqi Kurds live in the north.
The Turkmens are an ethnic group with linguistic and cultural ties to Turkey, and they practice a moderate form of Shiite Islam. Assyrians have lived in the region for centuries.
"There's so little trust among the different groups that it's hard to see how civil war can be avoided," said Ismael Shukir, a professor of modern Kurdish history at the University of Salahaddin. "Kirkuk could be the flashpoint for all of Iraq. All the nationalities are preparing for a big fight."
The ultimate prize is the oil, and Kirkuk sits atop an ocean of it. The Kirkuk fields hold an estimated 40 percent of all the oil in Iraq.
The state-owned Northern Oil Co. controls the Kirkuk crude, which is pumped north to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean. Exports have been halted for pipeline repairs, but outflows reportedly have never reached more than one-fourth capacity since liberation.
Harvey, a career British diplomat who'd never been to the Middle East before, thinks a war in Kirkuk isn't inevitable, although he admits that there are "huge challenges ahead . . . and every problem here has an ethnic dimension to it."
Foreign powers and various Baghdad regimes have been fiddling with the ethnic makeup of Kirkuk for the better part of a century. Now it's the locals who are doing the tampering.
Kirkuk and its outlying farming villages are being flooded with Kurdish refugees, many of whom Saddam Hussein brutally displaced 20 years ago.
When Saddam kicked out the Kurds, he moved in Arabs. Since liberation, the returning Kurds have been reclaiming their homes and farms, sometimes ejecting the Arab tenants at gunpoint. Arab-Kurd tension is unmistakable and nasty.
Meanwhile, Kurdish political parties have been paying Kurds to move to Kirkuk before elections and a census.
After liberation last year, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party quickly seized the city's broadcast center and set up their own TV stations.
They transferred squads of Kurdish police officers to Kirkuk. And the Kurdish president of the university in the city of Irbil exhorted his Kurdish professors to move to Kirkuk to claim teaching posts there.
Turkmen political agents, meanwhile, have been conducting covert censuses of their people in the city. And the Arabs, like the other groups, cite dusty historical tracts to substantiate their claims that Kirkuk is traditionally theirs.
If things do turn cataclysmic, the Kurds could mobilize 70,000 armed men, most of them well-trained guerrilla fighters. These Kurdish peshmerga, "those who face death," fought alongside U.S. Special Forces teams against Saddam's troops.
Turkmen parties also claim to have a military force in ready reserve. Turkey continues to make baleful statements about coming to the aid of its Iraqi brethren.
Sunni insurgents and Shiite volunteers could intervene on behalf of Kirkuk's Arabs.
There are reports of thousands of armed Shiite volunteers mustering across the border in Iran, and the Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr also seems to be anticipating a fight in Kirkuk. He's been busing some of his followers into the city.
"They come on Fridays, they pray at the mosque, then they create chaos in the streets," said Mudhafer Obed, whose TV and appliance shop is around the corner from the mosque.
There are other new faces, as well.
"All the intelligence services are here making problems: the Mossad (Israel), the CIA, (the Russian) FSB, the (Turkish) MIT. It only takes one of these agencies to make a lot of mischief," said Mahmoud Chalabi, a Turkmen political analyst.
Tahssin Kahya, the chief of the Kirkuk city council, believes al-Qaida and Ansar al Islam terror cells are operating in the city. Muhammad Ihsan, the minister for human rights in the Kurdistan regional government, also blames "ex-Baathists, Iran, Saudi fundamentalists and Syrian agents" for inciting ethnic hatred.
The 40-member Kirkuk city council, which will take over from the CPA, is composed of 13 Kurds, 10 Arabs, 10 Turkmen and seven Assyrians. The council has been fractious, dithering and ineffective.
"Every council member comes to meetings representing only his own nationality," said Kahya, a Turkmen. "It's like all these uneducated policemen we had to hire. They're out there representing only their own nationality, not the law."
The immediate future of Kirkuk will have a direct bearing on the possible creation of an independent Kurdistan. There are some 25 million Kurds spread across eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, Syria, Iran and Azerbaijan. They're a distinct nationality, but they've never had their own nation.
"We have the right to have our own country. It's the dream of every Kurd," said Jabar Abdullah, a senior Kurdish leader in Irbil. "But for the time being, our future is with Iraq."
And with the United States. The Kurdish leadership is hoping that a new airport being built outside Irbil will double as a permanent base for the U.S. military.
"Kurds represent the nucleus of a democratic, pluralistic system, and our values match those of the Americans," said Abdullah. "Until now, the U.S. has had only one democratic ally in the Middle East—Israel. Now it has two."
But even with U.S. backing, Kurdistan would have no direct access to the sea, complicating its oil exports, trade relations and economic viability.
What's more, Kurdistan would find itself in a tough neighborhood: Iran, Turkey, Syria and a new, Arab-dominated Iraq aren't likely to tolerate an independent, oil-rich Kurdish nation in their backyards.
If nationhood is the Kurds' No. 1 goal, then having Kirkuk as their capital runs a close second. Future petro-billions from Kirkuk's oil fields are critical to Kurdish independence.
"This Kurdish compulsion to join Kirkuk to Kurdistan is a major problem," said Kahya. "The Kurds believe that unless they achieve this goal, they'll have achieved nothing."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-HANDOVER-KURDS