Opinion: An uncertain future

Nermeen al-Mufti is a Kirkuk-based Iraqi journalist and the editor and founder of an Arabic-language Turkmen daily. She has been covering Iraq since the 1980s, when she was on the front lines of the Iran-Iraq war.

KIRKUK — In the wake of the US pullback of troops, we are left wondering about the future and what it holds for Iraq. 

So after the bombing here on "National Sovereignty Day" when it was finally safe to return to the streets, I went looking for a fortune teller named Ahlam who I used to know.

Her house was near the car bomb that exploded here on Tuesday — the holiday marking the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraqi cities. I wanted to know if she’d predicted the attack. But her neighbors told me she’d left the city, and perhaps even the country. Her son had been kidnapped and she’d paid the ransom.

She left at a time when no fortune teller in the world could see into Iraq's future.

In these first days after National Sovereignty Day, Iraqi police vehicles are still decorated with the multi-colored ribbons and Iraqi flags used to celebrate the U.S. pullout. There isn’t a single American soldier to be seen in the streets.

But things are far from quiet.

A day after the bombing of the Shurja market in northeast Kirkuk, broken stalls were still covered in dust and people’s faces covered in pain. Kameran, 12, came back to see if he could salvage anything from his family’s damaged shop. His father was badly wounded in the attack.

Hassan, who survived the bombing but lost the wooden push cart he used to sell watermelons, helped evacuate some of the 60 people injured in the attach. Thirty-three were killed.

Kirkuk is described by U.S. officials as one of the best-secured cities in the north, but Tuesday's attack was the second in 10 days. The first — a huge truck bomb south of Kirkuk that killed 83 Turkmen and wounded 210 — was the worst bombing in Iraq in a year and a half.

That bombing was at a Shiite mosque in a Turkmen town. The Kirkuk market bombing, detonated by remote control, was in a Kurdish area. No one has claimed responsibility.

People in Kirkuk are happy not to see Americans in their streets anymore. No one likes to be occupied. They like to think that violence will decrease because suicide bombers and those detonating car bombs and IEDs used to say they were attacking the Americans.

One member of the Kirkuk Provincial Council who did not want to be identified said council members were asking how truck and car bombs were able to pass through the extensive checkpoints in and around Kirkuk. He said security forces who did visual checks did not have any means of checking whether there were hidden explosives in a vehicle.

Gen. Aydin Khalid, senior deputy interior minister in Baghdad, told me he believed violence would not return to the levels of two years ago. The issue now, he said, isn't equipment or training, but rather intelligence.

“The terrorist attacks are trying to plant sedition among the ethnic components in Kirkuk,” said Ruzgar Ali, the head of the Kirkuk Provincial Council. They will not succeed, he said.

Amid the turmoil, the ethnic groups in Kirkuk — Turkmen, Kurdish and Arab officials and political parties — called for unity and restraint to block those who are trying to take advantage of the withdrawal of American forces from Iraqi cities.

The Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF) issued a statement saying it was demanding the results of the investigation into the truck bombing two weeks ago. “The authorities should tell us who is behind the attacks and who is responsible for the latest security breaches, which has become very clear in Kirkuk.”

Ershed Salahi , the head of the ITF’s Kirkuk Bureau, said his group was demanding more Turkmen in the Kirkuk police force, which is dominated by Kurdish forces. Kurdish political parties have also deployed the Peshmerga, the Kurdish militia, in Kirkuk and other disputed areas in the north. The United Nations has recommended joint control of Kirkuk.

On Thursday, hundreds of Peshmerga appeared in Bay Hassan and Sergiran, areas northwest of Kirkuk that are rich in oil and natural gas. They controlled the sites for six hours in what a Kirkuk official called a show of force in the disputed areas. The Iraqi Army’s 15th Division forced them to leave. The incident, which wasn't widely reported, could clearly lead to larger confrontations.

Iraq needs tens of billions of dollars to develop its oil and gas fields. But at the historic auction in Baghdad on June 30 offering development of the projects to the highest foreign bidder, the Iraqi oil ministry and the American oil company bidding on the Kirkuk field couldn’t agree on the price. It seems even the fate of Kirkuk’s oil is cloudy in the global economy's crystal ball.

Read more on Iraq:

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Iraq marks full sovereignty with a parade

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