Kurds Move To Upend The Status Quo In Kirkuk

In northern Iraq, Kirkuk has always been a flashpoint with Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs, who all claim it as their own. It has a special place in the new Iraqi constitution, but nothing has changed for years.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

People like to say the public, the media, even the government have trouble focusing on more than one thing at a time.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The situation right now requires we do that. Between Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans are involved in three wars at one time. We'll follow up, this morning, on the Iraqi conflict.

INSKEEP: An elected government may be in place but political tension remains in one flashpoint at the city of Kirkuk. Competing communities: The Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, all lay claims to a city with oil wealth.

NPR's Mike Shuster has a report.

MIKE SHUSTER: The first move in the latest Kirkuk gambit took place in the middle of the night on February 24th. Several thousand Kurdish troops, known as the Peshmerga, took up positions to the city's south and west. Peshmerga troops are normally stationed around the north and east of Kirkuk. With that move, they effectively surrounded the city.

Kurdish officials claimed the move was necessary because of threats from Arab insurgent and nationalist groups, who intended to hold protests in Hawijah to the west of Kirkuk. Those protests, on February 25th, resulted in the torching of a government building and the deaths of three people.

Peshmerga General Shirko Fatih Shwani said the Kurds resolved not to let that happen in Kirkuk.

Brigadier General SHIRKO FATIH SHWANI (Commander, 10th Peshmerga Brigade): (Through Translator) So there was this extraordinary decision by the Ministry of the Peshmerga that we should act to thwart this threat. Threat is all over Kirkuk, not only one single component, because we are defending all of Kirkuk: The Kurds, the Arabs, the Turkmen.

SHUSTER: When asked, specifically, who wanted to mount violent demonstrations in Kirkuk though, Kurdish leaders tick off a list of radical Arab groups, including al-Qaida, known to have taken part in the insurgency.

Rifat Abdullah Hameresh leads the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in Kirkuk, one of the two main Kurdish political parties that control Iraqi Kurdistan.

Mr. RIFAT ABDULLAH HAMERESH (Leader, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan: (Through Translator) Those groups that I listed, they have their own agendas and those have been responsible for planning those protests.

SHUSTER: This is an explanation that Kirkuk's Arab political leaders, like Muhammad Khalil al-Jiburi, don't buy.

Mr. MUHAMMAD KHALIL AL-JIBURI (Spokesman, Iraqi Republican Group): (Through Translator) This is sheer lies that the Kurdish are using, only to give some legitimacy for their presence here for entering into Kirkuk. Why haven't they brought the Iraqi army? There's a whole division here?

SHUSTER: Al-Jiburi said the Kurdish move was meant to deprive Arabs of their rights in Kirkuk, and sideline them politically.

Mr. AL-JIBURI: (Through Translator) And this also show of muscle by the two Kurdistan parties, that we have the power and we can take Kirkuk by force.

SHUSTER: No doubt there are Arab groups that do want to deprive the Kurds of control in Kirkuk. And no doubt some of them are linked to the Sunni insurgency that has been responsible for shedding so much blood in Iraq for so many years.

But there are also many here, including Kurds, who are skeptical about the claims that thousands of Peshmerga were needed to surround the city.

Ali Mehdi Sadik, a representative of the Turkmen community, agrees.

Mr. ALI MEHDI SADIK (Representative of Turkmen community): (Through Translator) The demilitarization of Kirkuk is the solution, not to bring in more arms.

SHUSTER: Parts of Kirkuk are bristling with weapons. One of the most heavily armed spots in the city is the Kirkuk Provincial Council. The council building and surrounding neighborhoods are crawling with police carrying AK-47s. Each of the 40 members of the council has several bodyguards, and they are all carrying pistols prominently displayed. No demilitarization here. Not surprising, given the political maneuvering that dominated the news in Kirkuk last week. The second move in the latest Kurdish gambit.

Kirkuk has not held an election for governor and other positions since 2005. So a back room deal was struck between the Kurds and the Turkmen to divide up key positions. This gave more power to the Turkmen parties, with one of their own, Hassan Toran, promised the chairmanship of the provincial council.

Mr. HASSAN TORAN (Selected for chairmanship of the provincial council): It is the first and the greatest step to the joint administration in this important province. As Turkmen, we think this joint administration will help us to solve other problems.

SHUSTER: Whether this deal will help to solve Kirkuk's other problems or cause new ones is not yet clear. The conflict has spilled out in the streets with clashes between Kurdish and Turkmen students on Monday, this against the backdrop of regular car bombs.

Still, the Kurdish leaders are pleased with the deal. Najmuddin Karim represents Kirkuk in the Iraqi parliament. He is the province's new governor.

Governor NAJMUDDIN KARIM (Kirkuk, Iraqi Parliament): Alliances will be strengthened. Turkmen, for example, will be given the president of the council, which means that they will be getting a position which recognizes them as original and sizable community in this province. It will also advance the political process towards more reconciliation and transition to a safer time and better relations between the communities.

SHUSTER: But the Arabs were left out of the deal. And some of the Kurdish members of the provincial council weren't that happy about it either. Last week, when all of this was supposed to have been put neatly into place, one Kurdish council member stood up and walked out in a noisy display of dissent.

Ali Mehdi Sadik, the Turkmen representative, acknowledged that politics in Kirkuk is a challenging sport.

Mr. SADIK: (Through Translator) Kirkuk is a very difficult city, and also to administer, Kirkuk is also a difficult task, and also to fill the posts with people is difficult.

SHUSTER: There is one other factor influencing both the military and political balance - the United States. Kirkuk is one of the last places in Iraq where American troops are on patrol - joint patrols with the Iraqi army and the peshmerga. But the U.S. is drawing down its troops here. The last of them are to be out of Iraq at the end of December.

None of the factions in Kirkuk want the Americans to leave. Back on the southern outskirts of the city, Shirko, the Kurdish general, insists he and his men are there to protect all the ethnic factions of this complex city. But, he says, they feel protected by the presence of the Americans.

General SHWANI: (Through Translator) It's better for the Americans to stay for a longer time. I think this is also for the good of Iraq as a whole.

SHUSTER: Both the Iraqi government and the U.S. military pressed the Kurds to withdraw their troops from their new positions, and they finally did on Monday. But many among the Americans and the Arabs worry that the move was a dry run for a more serious attempt to surround the city later on, when the U.S. withdrawal gets underway in earnest.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Sustained attention to an ongoing story. That's what you get on NPR News.

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