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Kurds moving aggressively to take control of oil-rich Kirkuk

KIRKUK, Iraq—This oil-rich city in northern Iraq always figured to be one of the great prizes of the war, and Kurdish political parties are aggressively moving to take control of it—lock, stock and oil barrel.

The Kurds, strongly opposed by rival groups of Arabs and Turkmen, have taken the largest physical hold of Kirkuk. Hundreds of Kurdish police officers have been imported from the neighboring ethnic enclave of Iraqi Kurdistan, and squads of Kurdish soldiers man the 24-hour checkpoints on every road leading into the city.

Kurdish leaders also are using the phrase "our Jerusalem" to refer to Kirkuk, a budding boomtown of 600,000 that is poised to generate billions of dollars in oil revenues. The city is not officially a part of Kurdistan, and until two weeks ago it remained firmly under Saddam Hussein's control.

Officials from the dominant and well-armed Kurdish groups—the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan—have occupied numerous government buildings in Kirkuk, along with the telecom offices, the TV station, military and police installations, and most of the former Baath Party offices. At each bank in town, two armed guards stand watch: one from the KDP, the other from the PUK.

Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen all claim to be the majority population in Kirkuk, although reliable population statistics do not exist. The last census here was done in 1957.

Ethnic and political violence continues to flare, and although U.S. forces here have been reinforced in recent days, they remain outmanned and overmatched. Gun battles, arson, extortion and looting are daily occurrences, and some of Kirkuk's most valuable oil installations are being left unguarded.

"Nobody is watching the Zambur (oil and gas) company," said a Kurdish police sergeant, Ibrahim Hamza Aziz. "We saw some men looting it the other day, but the Americans weren't around. And since the Americans don't allow us to carry guns, we couldn't do anything. Zambur is a huge facility, and you could blow up the whole place with a single cigarette butt."

Such is the cynicism about U.S. efforts here that Aziz and other Kurdish policemen say they believe Kirkuk's oil facilities are unguarded on purpose.

"All the oil equipment and machinery is Russian-made," he said. "Maybe the Americans WANT someone to blow it all up so they can rebuild it and replace everything with American equipment."

U.S. military officials in the city declined to be interviewed.

Kurds, meanwhile, are also moving to influence the cultural and social life of Kirkuk through a covert but aggressive campaign of flooding the city with Kurdish teachers, doctors, engineers and lawyers.

Over the weekend, for example, scores of Kurdish professors were bused to the University of Kirkuk from the University of Salahaddin, located in the Kurdish capital of Irbil. The Salahaddin president told the professors that it was their ethnic duty to apply for any postings in Kirkuk that are held by Arab instructors.

Plans are also being drafted for a new Kurdish university in Kirkuk, the president said.

In Kirkuk's shops and markets, Kurdish money is being accepted for the first time (along with U.S. dollars and the Iraqi dinars bearing Saddam's portrait). The PUK-controlled Channel 8 shows Kurdish music videos in the evenings, and the self-appointed minister of education, a Kurd, has been issuing decrees written in Kurdish, a language that few people here can read.

A new word has even entered the political vocabulary here—"takirid," which in Arabic means Kurdification.

"This word is an entirely new coinage," said Khalis Choperli, an official with the Iraqi Turkmen Front, an umbrella group for a number of Turkmen political factions. "This concept of Kurdification started immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein."

The Turkmen also lay claim to Kirkuk—they are dominant in the center of the city—and the baby-blue flags of the Turkmen Front can be seen fluttering above their political offices in many neighborhoods.

Iraq's estimated 1.4 million Turkmen are culturally and linguistically related to the Turks, who have pledged to militarily protect them against possible reprisals by Kurds and Arabs. Men allegedly belonging to the Turkish special forces were recently caught trying to smuggle weapons and ammunition into northern Iraq. Part of their cargo reportedly included flags and banners from the Iraqi Turkmen Front.

"Look at the graveyards here in Kirkuk and you'll see which people have always lived here," Choperli said. "All the graves are Turkmen graves, because Kurds and Arabs would never bury their relatives anywhere except in their home villages. When their relatives die, they take them back to Kurdistan or other parts of Iraq. That's where they're actually from, not Kirkuk."

The Arab population in the Kirkuk region began to increase dramatically in the 1980s as Saddam began his program of "Arabization," moving in Arabs from central and southern Iraq with guarantees of free land, free houses and cheap agricultural loans. At the same time, at a nearly genocidal rate, Saddam was gassing, killing and displacing hundreds of thousands of Kurds and Turkmen.

The dreaded and violent fallout from Arabization is being felt throughout northern Iraq, as Kurdish families are expelling Arab families from the houses, farms and villages where the Arabs have lived for a decade or more.

The Kurds are reclaiming these places as their ancestral homes, along with the vacated homes of military and political officers from the old regime. In the absence of any viable law, order or documentation, these "negotiations" over houses are often conducted at the business end of a Kalashnikov.

One Arab family in the Nasar section of Kirkuk, an extended family with 11 children, had its well-appointed home seized overnight by a Kurdish military officer. The family appealed to Kurdish police and security officials in the city, but they only shrugged.

"The officer said there was only one way for me to get him out of the house—if the Americans came and forced him out," said Marwan Muhadeen, an apprentice petroleum engineer. "He also said if the Americans did force him out, he would take his revenge on me and my family at night."

In several villages around Kirkuk, angry Arabs evicted from their houses have packed their belongings and then set fire to the dwellings. Better that, they reasoned, than let the returning Kurds have them.

"This is a difficult time, and we're frightened," said Aziz Ahmed, an Arab wheat farmer from a village outside Kirkuk. "We don't graze our sheep alone any more. We only go out in groups."

Ahmed said 85 Kurdish men surrounded the village one night last week and tried to steal several of the farmers' cars. Eventually, after several hours, they gave up and left.

"It's now going to be very hard for Kurds and Arabs to live side by side," Ahmed said. "In our little village we used to sleep so soundly. Now, nobody can sleep."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): KIRKUK