SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq—The city of Kirkuk, which sits on a sea of oil, will be the key objective of any U.S. assault on northern Iraq.
Thousands of Iraqi troops backed by tanks and artillery defend Kirkuk and its oil fields, which hold an estimated 10 billion barrels of proven reserves. The area lies just behind the Iraqi Army's front lines with the Kurdish rebel-held enclave that American troops would use to open a northern front. Baghdad is less than a five-hour drive away.
The Iraqi army has mined oil wells and dug huge ditches in which to burn oil, to produce thick smoke to obscure its positions, Kurdish officials and Iraqi deserters said.
These officials and deserters expect most Iraqi soldiers to surrender quickly in the face of overwhelming U.S. military power. But American troops may find it easier to seize Kirkuk than to bring the area long-term stability.
The nearly 1 million Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrian Christians and others here live in a region seething with ethnic and political tensions. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has made these tensions worse by clamping control over the region through expulsions, killings and military force.
His removal could take the lid off, and U.S. forces could get stuck trying to prevent revenge attacks, ethnic battles and even civil war.
The potential for strife will make Kirkuk a crucial test of how quickly the United States can bring order to post-Saddam Iraq and foster a new political system that meets the competing demands of the different ethnic, religious and political groups.
Thousands of Kurds and others disappeared or were killed during waves of ethnic cleansing in Kirkuk and other nearby oil-rich areas that peaked during Kurdish uprisings in the late 1980s and 1991. The Iraqi government then moved Arabs from other parts of Iraq into the city.
Now there is a danger that Kurds and other victims of Saddam's ethnic cleansing will rampage against Arab settlers and officials of Saddam's ruling Baath Party in Kirkuk. Kurds also could fight one another for the city and its oil or clash with ethnic Turkmen, prompting Turkey to invade in defense of its kin.
A glimpse of the challenge that would confront any American occupation of Kirkuk can be seen in the fury of Mustafa Saeed.
Mustafa lost his home 13 years ago. Saddam's bulldozers leveled it, along with the houses of 122 other families in the Kurdish village of Tarjeel, about 8 miles from Kirkuk.
"All 123 families were forced to leave," said the 36-year-old father of seven. "They destroyed all 123 homes that same day, and they built better ones for the Arabs. If it was in my hands, I would burn all of the Arabs in my village."
Today Mustafa is part of a legion of dispossessed people who live in squalid camps and colonies across the Kurdish rebel-held north. They are chafing to reclaim their homes and exact revenge.
Any anti-Arab pogroms in Kirkuk could ignite retaliatory attacks on Kurds in other parts of Iraq. Large numbers of Kurds live in overwhelmingly Arab Baghdad.
Kurdish leaders said they had instructed a Kurdish underground in Kirkuk to help American forces prevent a bloodbath.
"We have to set a really different example from that of Saddam," said Feraydoon Abdul Qadir, the interior minister of the part of the Kurdish enclave that the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan runs. "We have a strong organizational structure in Kirkuk. We have told them to ensure that there are no reprisals or revenge."
Yet Kurdish leaders conceded that they wouldn't prevent an insurrection before U.S. troops arrived or block a wave of returning exiles.
"If the people of Kirkuk . . . would uprise, congratulations!" PUK leader Jalal Talabani declared last month. "They are going back home. This is their right."
Kurdish leaders also want Arabs who were resettled under Saddam's policies to leave.
"Ethnic cleansing must be reversed. The settlers must go back to where they came from," said Barham Salih, the PUK prime minister. "That is a fundamental prerequisite for peace."
The Kurds say Kirkuk is their Jerusalem. The grimy refinery city has become a symbol of their suffering, and they want it to be the capital of a Kurd-dominated province in a new Iraqi federation.
Talabani and his longtime rival, Masood Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, promise to allow American troops to secure Kirkuk and its oil fields, and to leave it to a new Iraqi parliament to decide the area's future.
The pledge underscores the pair's improved cooperation since a 1994-98 civil war in which Saddam and Turkey backed Barzani and Iran helped Talabani. But they and their parties remain deeply riven by personal and political feuds. Each controls half of the Kurdish enclave.
The lure of Kirkuk's oil riches and the stature that possessing the city would confer could prove too much for one or both leaders, and U.S. troops could be caught in the midst of inter-Kurd battles for territory.
Both parties claim to have extensive undergrounds in Kirkuk, and each has separate governors in exile poised to move into the governor's office.
But there is another governor in exile waiting in the wings. He belongs to the Iraqi Turkmen Front, which represents the Turkmen, Iraq's third largest ethnic group, and is part of the American-backed Iraqi opposition.
Turkmen are linguistically and historically linked to Turkey, the region's former colonial ruler and the Turkmen's self-declared protector.
The Iraqi Turkmen Front, which reportedly is armed and funded by Turkey and boasts that it can field 70,000 fighters within two days, rejects the Kurds' claim to Kirkuk. It argues that most Kirkukis are Turkmen, an assertion it bases on annual birth rates since a 1957 census, Iraq's last national head count that is deemed reliable.
"This is a matter of a people with a history of 7,000 years. It is not an invitation that says whoever comes first, it will be their property," warned Kanan Shakir Agha, the deputy chief of the front.
The Kurds dispute the front's arithmetic, as well as its charges that Turkmen would face repression in a new Kurd-dominated province. They consider the front and its allegations inventions that Ankara cooked up to justify a Turkish army assault to seize Kirkuk and the oil-rich city of Mosul to the north.
Turkey warns that it will invade Iraq to deny the Kurds control of Kirkuk. It says Kurdish leaders would use Kirkuk's oil to underwrite independence for Iraq's 4 million Kurds, encouraging secessionism among Turkey's 12 million Kurds.
Kurdish leaders repeatedly have renounced a desire for independence. But they warn that their guerrillas will resist any Turkish incursion, raising the potential for yet another feud that could entangle U.S. troops occupying Kirkuk.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+KIRKUK
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20030311 USIRAQ KIRKUK, a map locating Iraq's oil fields and the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul