- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 17, 2003

KIRKUK, Iraq — U.S. military officials lauded the success of stabilization operations in this northern city at a news conference yesterday, unfazed by several wild bursts of machine-gun fire from the streets outside.

An initial burst of fire, believed to be from a skirmish between Kurdish and Arab groups in the oil-rich city, caused a delay in the start of the “State of Kirkuk” address to local reporters and community leaders by Maj.-Gen. Raymond Odierno of the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division.

A second round of shots, heard after the news conference began, only seemed to strengthen the general’s resolve.

“As we have stood here today, we’ve heard shots outside. Those are from a very few people in this city,” Gen. Odierno said. “We cannot allow a few people to stop the progress of this city, and we will not allow a few people to stop the progress of this city.”

The Pentagon’s Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance has not established a civilian administrator for northern Iraq, leaving the job of nation-building here to Gen. Odierno, the coalition commander for northeastern Iraq.

The general said he would oversee the establishment of a legitimate interim government for Kirkuk and the surrounding province of At Tamim over the next 10 days.

Beginning next Saturday, a group of 300 local Kurdish, Arab, Turkoman and Assyrian dignitaries chosen by the U.S. military will officially vote into office a 24-member city council to replace an appointed temporary council. Gen. Odierno will personally select six additional councilors.

The 30-member council then will screen candidates and elect a mayor for the city and province, in addition to several assistant mayors to preside over such sensitive issues as property disputes between Arabs and Kurds.

“Right now, you stand on the threshold of opportunity, and you must embrace change for the sake of yourselves and for your children,” Gen. Odierno said.

The general has reserved the right to nullify any vote by the interim government, including the election of any official he does not consider fit to be mayor. It was not clear yesterday whether he had any preference for a Kurd or an Arab mayor.

Age-old tensions between the groups have been simmering since the war ended, largely because of the ousted regime’s policy over several decades of driving out Kurdish families and giving their property to Arabs.

One of the Arab delegates at yesterday’s news conference said that for the last four days, the streets of Kirkuk have been like a “time bomb waiting to go off.”

Asked by the delegate what steps he would take to head off violence, Gen. Odierno noted that a functioning police department had been established over the past two weeks and said Iraqis of all ethnicities must “learn to protect yourselves.”

Others yesterday said they were not sure the people of Kirkuk were ready for democracy.

“We are just out of the war, and the people here never have experienced a democracy,” said Ali N. Salhi, president of a group calling itself the Free Officers and Civilian Movement.

Mr. Salhi, who has been working as a consultant for military officials and will run for mayor of Kirkuk, said one of the biggest problems is that Kurds in the city feel the temporary city council is too sympathetic to Arabs and former Ba’ath Party members.

On Thursday, as the council decreed that profits from this year’s harvest would be divided equally between Arabs and Kurds, about 200 Kurdish schoolgirls rallied noisily outside.

The girls, mostly teenaged or younger, chanted anti-Ba’ath Party slogans and carried signs calling for the removal of all former Ba’ath Party members from the city’s education system.

As with other protests held outside the building almost daily, the girls were kept at bay by rings of barbed wire, several dozen unarmed Iraqi police and American soldiers with M-16 rifles.

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