KIRKUK, Iraq — Supporters of the militant Shi’ite cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr are working with Saddam Hussein loyalists to foment ethnic strife in the contested northern city of Kirkuk, say Iraqi officials and residents.
They say Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi’s Army has recruited former Ba’ath Party security and intelligence officers in this oil-rich city to undermine efforts to reverse decades of ethnic cleansing under Saddam Hussein.
Saddam for years tried to “Arabize” Kirkuk by driving out native Kurds and Turkmen and giving their homes to Arabs — many of them Shi’ites relocated from the south.
Now, as Kurds try to reclaim their lost homes, Mahdi’s Army and its pro-Saddam allies are terrorizing Kurds while pressuring Arabs to remain in the city.
“While al-Sadr is battling U.S. forces in Najaf and Karbala, in Kirkuk his thugs are working among the Shi’ite Arab and Turkmen neighborhoods to stir just the kind of ethnic strife we all fear,” said a senior Kirkuk security official who requested anonymity.
They are the same men, he said, who once spied on their Shi’ite co-religionists for the former Sunni-dominated regime. “They have simply swapped their allegiances to Muqtada and are posing as Iraqi nationalists,” the police official said.
A late-night visit last week from a menacing man in black revived chilling memories for one Shi’ite resident, Amira Karim.
“‘If you choose to leave Kirkuk, you will never arrive home,’ ” Mrs. Karim quoted the man as saying outside her home on the southern edge of the city.
“‘The Arab hold on Kirkuk must be preserved against the Jews, the Kurds and all the collaborators with the infidels and the occupiers,’ ” she quoted him as saying. “‘It is your duty as a good Shi’ite Arab not to accept money to move away from here, not even to your hometown,’ ”
Two years ago, Mrs. Karim recalled, the same man had rattled the flimsy metal gate outside her house and demanded to talk to her 19-year-old son, Ali.
Ali, who was part of a clandestine anti-Saddam network, went with the man, telling his mother he would be back in an hour. She never saw him again.
The widowed mother of four learned later that the unwelcome visitor was a colonel in Saddam’s secret police.
But last week, the man said he was acting on behalf of Sheik al-Sadr, and his rhetoric closely followed the young cleric’s brand of religious nationalism tinged with violence and hatred.
Mahdi’s Army “will fight to defend and clean this city of Kurds in the name of Allah,” he said before disappearing.
Mrs. Karim knows she doesn’t belong in the city. She hails from the town of Diwaniyah, 280 miles away. She and her late husband were among thousands of Arab families — especially from the impoverished Shi’ite south — who were lured to Kirkuk by promises of jobs and financial security under Saddam’s Arabization campaign.
Enticements included cash bonuses, housing subsidies and property and land confiscated by the regime in a bid to increase Saddam’s control over Kirkuk and the vast oil reserves beneath it.
Mrs. Karim and her husband took advantage of the offer and built a modest house on land confiscated from a Kurdish farmer in the mid-1980s. But having once benefited from the former regime, she now finds herself its victim.
Since the war, Kurds and Turkmen have been pressing to get their homes and property back. They can be seen camping out, destitute, across Kirkuk in abandoned factories, looted warehouses, even in the city’s soccer stadium.
Thousands wait impatiently in the Kurdish cities of Irbil and Sulaymaniyah, where they sought refuge after being expelled by Saddam. And they all want the Arab settlers to leave.
At first glance, Kirkuk’s shabby buildings and potholed streets give little hint as to why the city of 700,000 arouses such passions. But the confluence of ethnic and sectarian fault lines, plus its proximity to the country’s second-largest oil field make the success of Kirkuk pivotal to the future of Iraq.
“It is a microcosm of the country,” said Hasib Rojbiyani, Kirkuk’s deputy mayor. “All the nationalities and religions are here — Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs and Christians. If it works, then there is hope for a new Iraq. If it fails, then God help us all.”
During years of Ba’athist rule, he said, the city was milked for its oil while many of its people were tortured, deported or killed. “It is difficult to believe that a city could be so neglected and its population so traumatized,” Mr. Rojbiyani said.
Paul Harvey, a senior official with the Coalition Provisional Authority in Kirkuk, said the potential for confrontation in the city is great.
“Who controls Kirkuk and how it will fit into the new sovereign Iraq is a key issue for the future of the country,” he said. “Dismantling Saddam’s legacy will not be easy.”
The Iraqi interim constitution signed in March fudged the status of Kirkuk, leaving it until a permanent constitution is drawn up. Until then, people such as Mrs. Karim will live in limbo.
Lacking money to return to Diwaniyah, she has been told she might be eligible for compensation under a new property-claims program. But she also knows that if she takes the money and moves, Sheik al-Sadr’s people could come for her.
“Their message is full of hate,” Mrs. Karim said. “I do not want to fight the Kurds. We took their land. I am ready to go home. But I need some help.”