- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 25, 2005

KIRKUK, Iraq — For Kurdish politician Rizgar Ali, this is the city for which his people have suffered and sacrificed so much.

For Mohammad Khalil, a Sunni Arab party leader, this city is his mother and all the people he has known. To Tahseen Mohammad Ali, a Turkmen leader, all Kirkuk’s children have suffered, including his people.

For all three politicians, running for seats in the Kirkuk provincial assembly, Iraq’s most heated local election, the vote isn’t about Iraq. It’s a battle to define this gritty, ancient oil town.

For most Iraqis, reasons for voting in Sunday’s election include abstract calls for civic participation and the murky promise of a more secure country. But for many Iraqis living in and around this ethnically diverse city, the election is about one thing: Kirkuk, just Kirkuk.

“I am willing to die for Kirkuk. And if attacked, I’m willing to kill for Kirkuk,” said Hoger Sabah Salih, a Kurdish pharmacy student and resident of Irbil, during a two-day visit to northern Iraq organized for journalists by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

Kirkuk’s troubles began decades ago when successive Sunni Arab-led governments in Baghdad began kicking Kurds out of the area and replacing them with Arabs. Many of the displaced were thrown into decades of despair and misery and now demand to return.

Leaders of the semi-autonomous Kurdish provinces of Irbil, Sulaymaniyah and Dohuk threw in their lot with the Americans during the war, and now demand the inclusion of Kirkuk province in the Kurdish region, which has its own parliament and ministries.

According to one Western diplomat based in northern Iraq, Kurds have extended the area they control by 20 percent since the March 2003 U.S.-led war, pushing the sun-splashed red, white and green flag of Kurdistan toward Mosul and Khaneqin, as well as Kirkuk.

Sunni Arabs, who mostly occupy the western countryside of Kirkuk province, don’t want to part with Kirkuk city and province, which they dread will be wrested away from Baghdad by the Kurds.

“Kirkuk for all Iraqis,” is the slogan of Iraqi Republican Gathering, a Sunni Arab party active in the provincial elections. “Going to vote will benefit our people,” said Mr. Khalil, a party candidate.

So acrimonious has the battle over Kirkuk city become that the Muslim Scholars Association, a bloc of Sunni Arab clergy who have boisterously called for a boycott of the Jan. 30 vote, added an order to their followers to take part in the Kirkuk provincial elections in order to counter the strong anticipated showing by Kurds.

For Sunni Arabs here, “it’s not about what happens nationally, it’s about this city — about what happens here vis-a-vis the other ethnic groups,” said U.S. Army Col. Lloyd Miles, commander of the 25th Infantry Division’s Honolulu-based 2nd Brigade Combat Team.

Though impoverished and neglected over recent decades, Kirkuk is a treasure. The province yields 40 percent of Iraq’s oil, 70 percent of its petroleum products and much of its agriculture.

Kurds say they deserve compensation for the decades of Baghdad’s policy of “Arabization.” Turkmen say they were oppressed and excluded by ousted dictator Saddam Hussein and now face pressure from the Kurds. Sunni Arabs and Shi’ites say they’ve been unfairly accused of collaborating with the previous regime. Few groups appear willing to back down on their demands.

“As Kurds, we have been victimized by the previous regime,” said Ala Talabani, a politician running for national office on the Kurdistan Alliance ticket. We cannot allow that to be repeated, and for someone else to victimize us. We have suffered a lot, and we do not want that repeated for ourselves or others.”

Kirkuk province’s volatile ethnic mix has made governing the region akin to refereeing rival claims of victimization by Iraq’s different ethnic groups.

“All the major ethnicities of Iraq are located in this province,” said Col. Miles. “It’s often said that if we get it right in Kirkuk, we can get it right in the rest of the country.”

The same security worries that have plagued the rest of Iraq have squelched much of the public political campaigning in the city, except for the Kurds and Turkmen who have used their satellite television stations to call upon their people to vote. An estimated 200,000 displaced Kurds who were born in Kirkuk or whose fathers or grandfathers were born in Kirkuk have registered to vote in the provincial election.

The passions surrounding the issue of Kirkuk spilled out during a chat with residents organized by the U.S. Embassy. Two Iraqi journalists, one married to a Kurd and the other a member of a Sunni Arab party, got into a shouting match.

“We don’t object to the original people of Kirkuk returning,” said Hana al-Sawaf of the Iraqi Republican Gathering. “We object to people coming here who are not from here, and taking over buildings.”

Ishraq Hassan Ali, married to a Kurd who fought against Saddam, shot back: “I will defend the people who have suffered.”

“These people are coming back and taking over houses as squatters because their homes have been stolen since they were kicked off their land,” she said.

Mrs. al-Sawaf replied that her people have suffered since the fall of the regime because of the Kurds. “I have three brothers in the Iraqi army and now they’re jobless. My older brother applied for a job and was told they preferred Kurds.”

“Where were the Arabs,” Mrs. Ali shot back, “when Kurdish children fleeing Saddam’s wrath froze to death in the snow?”

Mrs. al-Sawaf responded angrily that Kurds were using the elections as a way of stirring up trouble and old memories. “Saddam committed atrocities against everyone,” she said, “in Samawa, Hilla, Najaf — not just against Kurds.”

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