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Graves of Iraqi victims cast shadow over Kirkuk as new tug-of-war gets under way

KIRKUK, Iraq—The statue of Saddam Hussein in the main square of this oil-rich northern city has been pulled down and beheaded, and tea shops and food stalls have reopened. Some of the old regime's traffic police are back in uniform and back on the job, dozing in their kiosks as usual.

"But this is just a superficial calm," said Kemal Kerkuki, a Kurdish civilian official who is the chief liaison with U.S. forces in Kirkuk. "Deep down, it's still very dangerous here. Many Baathists are still armed and still at large. Some of them are ex-security officers whose hands are red with Iraqi blood. It will take a bit more time to restore order to Kirkuk."

Fires have been burning all over the city for more than a week, and Saturday a warehouse fire sent up a fat plume of black smoke that curled into the shape of a question mark that hung over the city.

The grisliest question is this: Who are all those people buried in the wheat field?

Turn left at the Pepsi plant, continue past the scorched tanks and the empty Iraqi bunkers, make your way through the wildflowers and the waist-high winter wheat, and suddenly, just over a gentle rise, there they are, 3,000 of them, grave after grave of them, row upon row, acres and acres of man-sized mounds of dirt.

All but 10 of the graves are unmarked, and two of the bodies have been exhumed for examination and dating.

A local gravedigger said the bodies in the field were civilian and military victims of the 1988 Anfal campaign, Saddam's reign of terror against northern Kurds and other opponents of his regime.

The old gravedigger said he ought to know who was out there in the wheat field. He buried them there himself.

The Anfal campaign was the work of Gen. Ali Hasan al Majid, Saddam's cousin, ex-minister of defense and a former head of Iraqi intelligence. He killed 5,000 Kurds in a single afternoon, with a nerve gas attack on the town of Halabja. "Chemical Ali," as he came to be known, is believed to have been killed by a coalition air attack on his house April 5 in the southern city of Basra.

Another of his houses, on a hilltop in Kirkuk, overlooks the mass graves in the wheat field.

Local people call the burial ground al Mansia, the Forgotten Place, and they swear they can hear shouts and whistling coming from under the earth at night.

"Sometimes the ghosts throw stones at us to warn us away from here," said Reian Ahmed, a Kirkuk grocer and former anti-aircraft gunner in the Iraqi Army. "You can tell, they are not happy under this earth."

Kirkuk has always been one of the richest prizes in Iraq, and a new tug-of-war is under way as rival Kurdish parties, regional Arab chieftains and a large Turkmen political group jockey for position. Control of the oil fields will mean billions of dollars.

U.S. military officers have been holding meetings with leaders of all the factions, but the military's top priorities are getting round-the-clock control of Kirkuk and hunting down renegade snipers and high-ranking members of Saddam's Baath Party. Some municipal and police officials from the former regime have been called in to help, although they're being closely watched and investigated.

"We have lots of suspicions about them," Kerkuki said. "They could be most dangerous to us."

U.S. special forces, military police and combined Kurdish units have secured Kirkuk's oil fields, pipelines and pumping stations, along with the main hydroelectric station at Dibis. But some of the oil installations were sabotaged before the Baathists fled Kirkuk. Engineers have been working furiously to get the oil flowing again, but Kerkuki couldn't even guarantee that it would restart by summer.

One bright spot: Kirkuk's small airport was due to reopen Sunday.


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

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