KIRKUK, Iraq—Passions run deep for the Arab and Kurdish soldiers who wear the Iraqi army uniform.
Kirkuk lies just a few miles from one of the nation's largest oil fields, worth billions of dollars. Arabs figure that the city's oil wealth should belong to Iraq, while ethnic Kurds see it as part of a future nation of Kurdistan.
"If the Kurds want to separate from Iraq it's OK, as long as they keep their present boundaries," said Sgt. Hazim Aziz, an Arab soldier who was stubbing out a cigarette in a barracks room. "But there can be no conversation about them taking Kirkuk. ... If it becomes a matter of fighting, then we will join any force that fights to keep Kirkuk. We will die to keep it."
Kurdish soldiers in the room seethed at the words.
"These soldiers do not know anything about Kirkuk," Capt. Ismail Mahmoud, a former member of the Kurdish Peshmerga militia, said as he got up angrily and walked out of the room. "There is no other choice. If Kirkuk does not become part of Kurdistan peacefully we will fight for 100 years to take it."
Five days spent interviewing Iraqi army soldiers in northern Iraq—who are overwhelmingly Kurdish—made clear that many soldiers think that a civil war is coming.
"I see Iraq gradually becoming three regions that will one day become independent," said Jafar Mustafir, a close adviser to Iraq's Kurdish interim president, Jalal Talabani, and the deputy head of Peshmerga for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of two major Kurdish parties. "I see us moving toward the end of Iraq."
Achieving independence is a matter of life and death for Mahmoud, as with most other Kurdish soldiers interviewed.
His father, a Peshmerga, was killed by Sunni Arab dictator Saddam Hussein's troops in 1991 during fighting in Kirkuk. His entire neighborhood in Kirkuk, which housed some 2,000 families, was razed that year as Saddam massacred Kurds and replaced them with Arabs.
"We all left in bare feet," he said while walking through the cold mud outside the barracks. "My father was martyred for this struggle. It's my turn now, and if I don't succeed my son will continue the struggle. ... I try to explain these things to my Arab soldiers, and I hope that I do not end up fighting them."
Almost all the Kurdish soldiers interviewed expressed that sentiment.
Col. Sabar Saleem, the head of intelligence for the 4th Brigade of the Iraqi 2nd Division in the city of Mosul, said there would be no compromise over Kirkuk.
"War is just another kind of political solution," said Saleem, a former Peshmerga.
He said that while he wore an Iraqi army uniform he had a much larger mission in mind.
"I tell you that I am a part of the Iraqi army, but when it comes to the Kurdish cause I am willing to offer my life, my head, for one inch of Kurdish land," Saleem said. "Especially for Kirkuk."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.