Iraq's north locked in own bitter struggle

KIRKUK, Iraq — When campaigning for Iraq’s parliamentary election season officially kicked off at midnight in the diverse, oil-rich northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, U.S. Army Col. Larry Swift was stunned.

Read more on the Iraq election.

“It literally started at midnight, and it was like race,” said Swift, whose 1st brigade of the 1st Armored Division is responsible for Kirkuk and the surrounding area. “Posters went up, banners went up, flags went up. It was a sprint to make as big as impression as possible, and in that sprint there was some stepping on each others’ toes.”

In the Feb. 11 rush to tape, nail and erect as many campaign posters and pictures as possible, “tensions” developed. Usually, fights or clashes in Kirkuk take place between the city’s largest groups: the Kurds, Arabs or Turkmen. But this time the problems were within the Kurdish community itself, and caused by the existence of a new political party, called Goran, or “Change.”

“The Kurdistan alliance started tearing down our posters and billboards, throwing them away or burning them, in order to keep our keep us away from the streets,” said Jalal Jawhar, the Change’s director in Kirkuk.

Jawhar said the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, sent party members to intimidate Goran supporters by shooting guns outside their homes. He said the Iraqi police did nothing, because they were members of the two large and established Kurdish parties, the PUK and the Kurdish Democratic Party, or KDP.

American officials told GlobalPost that they were “surprised” by the competition, and the disputes, that took place between the Kurds. The PUK and KDP did fight violent civil wars in the 1980s and '90s, but since the late '90s the two groups had shared power in northern Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region and government in northern Iraq.

Jawhar, who as a PUK guerrilla fought against Saddam Hussein’s regime, said his “Change” party would help do away with the corrupt, rigid ways of the old Kurdish parties.

“Those groups, especially the PUK, they have a mentality, a way of thinking, that doesn’t allow the others to be in the political process with them,” he said. “They only want to control everything by themselves. So that’s why they’re tearing down the posters or intimidating people and telling them to stop trying to be in politics.”

Rifaat Abdullah, the PUK leader in Kirkuk and Jawri’s cousin, denies targeting the Change party’s supporters or political advertising. He says his party has been the victim of intimidation and vandalism coming from the Change party’s ranks, and that one man was injured and another killed when someone shot them as they drove down a street in Kirkuku on a motorcycle flying the PUK flag. Despite the incidents and resulting tension, he says Kurds will not fight against each other again.

“The Kurds had a very hard time in the past,” he said. “The leadership has decided not to repeat this experience, because what happened in the past is considered shameful.”

All three Kurdish parties can agree on one thing: that Kirkuk is part of the traditional Kurdish homeland, and should be part of the Kurd’s northern autonomous region, and some day an independent Kurdish nation. Each party still has their own security forces, and Peshmerga, who man their bases in Kirkuk.

Driving through Kirkuk, a visitor can tell which party owns which neighborhoods by the flags. Kurdish flags, along with PUK and KDP flags, indicate Kurdish neighborhoods. Iraqi flags are flown by both Turkmen and Arabs to show allegiance to the central government in Baghdad.

Mixed neighborhoods can be the most volatile, like those where Kirkuk’s population of Turkmen live. Tensions between Turkmen and the Kurds came to a head last week, when a Turkmen politician narrowly escaped assassination in downtown Kirkuk. Arshad Al-Salihi, head of the Iraqi Turkmen Front in Kirkuk, says the Kurds were to blame.

“They wanted to strike down the powerful voice of the Turkmen, especially the Turkmen front” he said. “One was the assassination operation, and then they attacked the Turkmen Front headquarters. But we were wise and dealt with the situation in a wise way to contain the problem.”

But the patch is only temporary. The Kirkuk issue is one of the biggest confronting Iraq as the Americans begin to pull out troops. The Kurds claim northern Iraq, and Kirkuk, as their ancestral homeland. They were kicked out of the oil region around Kirkuk by Saddam Hussein in an effort to “Arabize” the city.

Now, the Kurds who were forced to leave have returned, but the Arabs remain, and the status of Kirkuk is undecided. The Iraqi Constitution states that a referendum on the city be held to determine its status — but the vote has been put off. The Kurds fear the vote will bring the city under Baghdad’s control. The Arabs and Turkmen fear control will go to the Kurdistan government; a move that Al-Salihi says could cause civil war.

“This could lead us into a hurricane,” he said.

Al-Salihi also criticized the Americans for “backing the Kurds” in their quest to have Kirkuk included in Kurdistan.

Al-Salihi wants a transitional, shared government responsible for Kirkuk until demographic and property issues can be determined. Until those issues are resolved, a vote on Kirkuk’s status is unlikely to occur. Rifaat Abdullah, the PUK leader in Kurdistan, says he still envisions a day when Kirkuk is part of a state called Kurdistan ... but realizes it’s not possible now.

“We believe that the current circumstances in Iraq are suitable to returning Kirkuk to the Kurdistan regional government, and creating an independent state,” he said. “But let’s think about that. If we’re going to do that, then we see Kurdistan is bordered by Iran, Turkey and Syria. And doing this would be suicide.”

For now, Swift’s U.S. troops are acting as peacemakers in the Kurd-on-Kurd and Kurd vs. Arab or Turkmen disputes. They’ve increased their patrols with Iraqi police and Iraqi Army soldiers in the city.

“There’s a competent police force and army keeping it together every day, and we are really an enabler for them,” he said.

The plan has worked, and the city is relatively peaceful. But that could change quickly. Due to the northern fault lines between Arabs and Kurds, and now perhaps between the Kurds, U.S. combat troops are likely to stay in Kirkuk and the surrounding areas longer than any other in Iraq. And the reaction to Sunday’s vote is likely to determine how long U.S. troops will stay in Iraq or if they will leave by the September deadline President Obama has outlined.

This story was updated to correct the names of Jalal Jawhar, Rifaat Abdullah and Arshad Al-Salihi.