ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Melissa Block.
American troops are on schedule to be out of Iraq's cities by tomorrow, that's in accordance with the Status of Forces Agreement between the U.S. and Iraq. Both Baghdad and Washington are keen to have Iraqi troops take over responsibility. But as the U.S. military steps back, it will also be losing influence in Iraq's many outstanding disputes. One of those disputes is over Kirkuk, a province that contains a broad mix of Iraq's ethnic and religious groups.
NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.
QUIL LAWRENCE: A few celebrations were held today in Baghdad marking the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq's cities.
(Soundbite of music)
LAWRENCE: A band played the national anthem, and police cordoned off a park in the city center for festivities. But in some parts of Iraq, the mood remains somber. The town of Taza, in the northern province of Kirkuk, is still trying to pick up the pieces of its central square.
(Soundbite of vehicle)
LAWRENCE: A massive truck bomb here last week killed nearly 80 people. Days later, residents are still digging out ruined homes and washing debris from the street with a fire hose. American military officials think the bomber was aiming for Kirkuk city, but was discouraged by security checkpoints. Taza may have simply been the nearest town they could find to hit. It's also an ethnic Turkoman town and almost all Shiite Muslim.
Mayor HADI FATAH (Taza): (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: We are united in Iraq, says Taza's mayor, Hadi Fatah. He says the bomb will not create division among Turkomans, Kurds and Arabs, or among religious sects. Shortly after the attack, politicians began flocking to the town's long funeral tent.
(Soundbite of hymn)
LAWRENCE: Representatives from Baghdad came to pay their respects. Members of the Iraqi parliament even pledged to dock their own pay and donate it to the town's reconstruction. Everyone condemned the attack, but some went a bit further. Ali Sadek is with the Iraqi Turkoman Front.
Mr. ALI SADEK (Iraqi Turkoman Front): (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: The only group that can benefit from such attacks is the Kurds, says Sadek. He explains that the attack weakens the authority of the government in Baghdad, and this strengthens the semi-autonomous Kurds in northern Iraq. There's no evidence to support his claim, but these sorts of conspiracy theories abound in Iraq. And his next theory involves the American troop drawdown.
Mr. SADEK: (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: The Americans are to blame for letting the Kurdish security forces into Kirkuk, says Sadek. But if the Americans leave, then nothing will limit Kurdish domination of the city.
Not everyone shares Sadek's view, but Kirkuk is one of Iraq's most delicate questions. Saddam Hussein subjected the province to ethnic cleansing, trying to make an Arab majority by eliminating Kurds and Turkomans. With its vast oil wealth, there's considerable international interest in who will end up controlling Kirkuk now.
Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: So far, the question has been deadlocked in meetings like this one of the Kirkuk Provincial Council. The Kurds, Arabs, Turkomans and Christians on the council have their differences, but they blame the greater tension on politicians from outside Kirkuk.
Several times in the past year, the posturing between Kurds and Arabs has gotten dangerously close to confrontation. That may be one of the things that Americans will have less control over as they pull back.
Brigadier General Craig Nixon, who commands U.S. forces in Kirkuk, says U.S. troops must try to keep on top of the situation in Kirkuk even as they pull away.
Brigadier General CRAIG NIXON (Commander, U.S. Forces, Kirkuk): I think the presence of the coalition forces, particularly in the cities, will decrease and there will be a visible sign of the decrease of the presence. We will continue to support the Iraqis at their request within the security agreement. But I think you'll see a reduced presence throughout all of the major cities.
LAWRENCE: But citizens in Kirkuk don't appear to be concerned about an abrupt change. Muhammad Khalil al-Juburi, an Arab member of the provincial council, says he's glad to see the Americans sticking to their deal with Iraq.
Mr. MUHAMMAD KHALIL AL-JUBURI (Kirkuk Provincial Council): (Through Translator) Frankly, there won't be a big difference here. The stability in the region is thanks to the Iraqi forces, and the Americans are pulling out as the Iraqis told them to in the agreement.
LAWRENCE: In any case, the U.S. base in Kirkuk isn't moving. The Iraqi government has agreed that it's officially outside of Kirkuk, though it borders the town.
In the city's central market, an older Kurdish gentleman says he does hope the Americans stay nearby for a while.
Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: The people of Kirkuk are getting along fine, he says. It's the politicians that we have to worry about.
Unidentified Man #2: No good. Very, very no good.
LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Kirkuk.