- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 18, 2003

KIRKUK, Iraq — Military commanders, working without the assistance of U.S. civilian administrators active in other parts of Iraq, have achieved an uneasy peace between long-feuding Kurds and Arabs and say they are ready to begin “legitimizing” a multiethnic council to run the nation’s northern oil capital.

But a protest outside military offices by more than 150 angry Kurds last week showed that solutions must still be found to competing land claims stemming from the ousted regime’s long-term program of driving out Kurds and resettling Arabs from the south into their homes.

“There is a lot of tension here caused by the resettlement program, or the forced Arabization program,” said Brig. Gen. Stephen M. Speakes of the Army’s 4th Infantry Division, which along with the 173rd Airborne Division is struggling to get a civilian administration up and running in this key economic hub.

“While we might not have a lasting solution to what was a decades-long program, we have to realize that it divides Kurds against Arabs — the Kurds who lost their generational homes, yet conversely, the Arabs who were in many cases made to move north, made an investment … and also must be recognized as well.”

Kirkuk is the main city controlling Iraq’s rich northern oil fields and, as such, is considered one of the nation’s most important prizes. It was for this reason that ousted President Saddam Hussein worked for years to “Arabize” the city by driving out Kurds and moving southern Arabs into their homes.

Despite the competing property claims, Gen. Speakes said U.S. forces have managed to “freeze” the tensions and cobble together a temporary city council consisting of six representatives from each of the region’s main ethnic groups — Arabs, Kurds, Turkomen and Assyrians.

Strains in the group have subsided to the point where military authorities hope to transform the temporary city council into an official interim government for Kirkuk by the middle of next week, military commanders said.

But the Kurdish protesters last week said they were fired on by Arabs when they tried to excavate a mass grave on the city’s outskirts, and that they had come to request U.S. military protection to return to the site.

Acting as impromptu spokesman for the edgy crowd, Sarkout Ahmed, 37, said he and others had been surrounded by Arab men wearing Iraqi army uniforms when they went to the gravesite in Taza, about 5 miles south of Kirkuk, several days earlier. The Arabs fired two shots at them, driving them, he said.

The Kurds said they reported the incident to American officials, but no action was taken, so they had come en masse to the joint government building to demand U.S. intervention.

“We came here today to get help from U.S. forces to dig our relatives up to give them a proper burial in Kirkuk,” Mr. Ahmed said.

Maj. Josslyn Aberle, a spokeswoman for the Army’s 4th Infantry Division, said, “Unfortunately, mass graves cannot be given a higher priority than the continued security and stability of the city.

“It’s a valid concern and it will be addressed,” she said.

That failed to satisfy the frustrated Kurdish protesters, who said they would go back to the site with guns of their own if American troops failed to protect them.

The Americans “have a lot of priorities to take care of now,” said Mr. Ahmed, “but we have less than a quarter of the families of the men in the mass grave gathered out here, and if they thought that was important, they would have come out and taken care of the situation.”

He and his fellow demonstrators also complained that American forces were giving too many administrative positions to members of Saddam’s former ruling Ba’ath Party at the expense of other groups such as their own.

They were particularly incensed that Arabs now living in homes from which Kurds were driven by Saddam’s government are now enjoying equal representation with the Kurds on the newly formed city council.

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