In Violent Iraq, U.S. Hopes to Keep Kirkuk Calm In Iraq today, three bomb blasts left more than 75 dead and 145 wounded. The attacks occurred as U.S. and Iraqi forces step up a massive security operation aimed at stabilizing the capital. Thousands have died in Baghdad in the sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shia.

In Violent Iraq, U.S. Hopes to Keep Kirkuk Calm

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Iraq is where we're going to begin this hour. There were, as we've been hearing, three bomb blasts in Baghdad, which left at least 75 people dead and 145 wounded. American and Iraqi forces are in the early stages of their new security operation aimed at putting an end to the violence between Sunnis and Shiites in the Iraqi capital. That is not where we're going to focus right now.

We're going to hear about the situation in Kirkuk, a city with a different, but equally explosive ethnic mix. Kirkuk, in Iraq's north, is home to Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen. And while it's been relatively calm compared to Baghdad, there are tensions and there are fears they could boil over. A referendum is planned on whether Kirkuk should become part of an autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq.

Here's NPR's Jamie Tarabay.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)

JAMIE TARABAY: Kirkuk's Arab leaders aired their grievances recently at the headquarters of a local human rights organization. Rapped in thick, woolen robes against the cold, they listened to different speakers. Cigarette smoke filled the large hall.

Their concerns over Kirkuk becoming part of the greater Kurdistan are clear. One man noted that Kurdish leader Masud Barzani calls Kirkuk the heart of Kurdistan. Another speaker urges Kirkuk's Sunni and Shiite Arabs to stand together against any move to separate Kirkuk from Iraq.

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language)

TARABAY: In a room nearby, U.S. Army captain Rob Wolfe is meeting with another Kirkuk's Arab leaders. Sheikh Abdel Rahman Mustafa has come with a list of Arab men detained by U.S. and Iraqi forces for suspected insurgent activity.

Captain ROB WOLFE (United States Army): What are they? five brothers?

Unidentified Man #3: (Speaking foreign language)

Sheikh ABDEL RAHMAN MUSTAFA: (Speaking foreign language)

TARABAY: Wolfe offers to go with the sheikh to the detention center to make sure those arrested get legal aid. Mustafa doesn't look happy. Like other local Arabs here, Mustafa opposes the U.S. presence. He's suspected of actively supporting attacks against U.S. troops. When insurgents blew up a local police station in Kirkuk, U.S. officers say the attackers fled to Mustafa's house. But he denied any knowledge of the incident.

Mustafa says there are two things worrying Arabs in Kirkuk - the detainees and Article 140 of Iraq's new constitution, which calls for a referendum on Kirkuk's status by the end of this year.

Sheikh MUSTAFA: (Through translator) The wishes of the Turkmen and Arab people in this city, it's far, far away from Kirkuk being a part of Kurdistan region.

TARABAY: The sheikh accuses Kurdish political parties of flooding Kirkuk with new Kurdish residents to boost their numbers in the vote. He says the Kurds have abused their nearly gained power here and he warns that any move towards annexing Kirkuk to Kurdistan will result in violence.

Sheikh MUSTAFA: (Through translator) It's definitely will be violent. And right now, I'm so calm, but if you go on the streets and talk to any Turkman or any Arab, you will hear anger about discussing this current issue.

TARABAY: The anger goes both ways, and the stakes are high. Kirkuk straddles the main oilfield to the northern Iraq. To ensure the loyalty of the region, Saddam Hussein's regime expelled tens of thousands of Kurds and Turkmen and brought in Arabs from other parts of the country.

Razqar Ali, the Kurdish head of Kirkuk's provincial council, says he's concerned that even more Arabs may attempt to settle in the city. Many Iraqis living in Baghdad and elsewhere has led to the relative safety of the Kurdish north to escape the boiling sectarian violence.

Mr. RAZQAR ALI (Kirkuk's Provincial Council): Why are Arab families now try to live in a Kurdistan region? Why? Because in their area they try to kill them.

TARABAY: Ali says until the referendum is over, only original citizens Kirkuk should be allowed to live here. But the ethnic identity of Kirkuk is a source of friction between the Kurdish dominated provincial government and the Shiite Arab majority that controls the central government in Baghdad. Ali and other Kurdish officials accused Baghdad of stalling on key issues that will allow the referendum to be held as scheduled in December. David Gundle(ph) works on the issue of Kirkuk for the U.S. State Department.

Mr. DAVID GUNDLE (Department of State): Well, the December deadline is indeed possible, but everything leading out to it seems very difficult.

TARABAY: First, there's what's called normalization, allowing the Kurds and Turkmen expelled by Saddam to return to Kirkuk. At the same time, the government is supposed to compensate Arabs resettled here by Saddam for the homes they must now, in theory at least, abandon. A special commission was established to deal with these issues, but so far it has made little progress. Once that obstacle is out of the way, there's supposed to be a census in Kirkuk. That too is fraught with problems, says David Gundle.

Mr. GUNDLE: So in order to census and how that's going to be carried out, no one knows. The U.N. seems willing to consider being involved in that.

TARABAY: And there's more. Local elections are set for May. And there's also expected to be a new voter registration drive ahead of the December referendum. U.S. military officials doubt everything can be done on time. All those benchmarks are likely flashpoints for violence, says Colonel Patrick Stackpole, brigade commander of the 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division. He advises Kirkuk's Arabs in particular to stick with negotiations instead of threatening violence.

Colonel PATRICK STACKPOLE (3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division): They get the guys that, they don't want to play in the political spectrum, want to go in the battle spectrum, and we put them in jail or kill them. If we keep them all talking to each other, it will work out. There's enough here for everybody, because we're sitting on a sea of oil right now.

(Soundbite of engine running)

TARABAY: In Adala, a (unintelligible) of a neighborhood in Kirkuk, American soldiers walk around handing out anti-terrorism leaflets to the locals. A car bomb blew up here recently. The military says the target was a local business. Adala's a mixed neighborhood of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen. Soad Al-Wan is an Arab brought to live here by Saddam's government 15 years ago. She doesn't want to leave.

Ms. SOAD AL-WAN: (Through translator) Of course, we are afraid. We don't know what would happen if Kirkuk were to ignite. A lot of the Arabs here are wise we might be moved.

TARABAY: Soad says she feels the pull to stay in Kirkuk even more now because of the violence consuming Baghdad. Kirkuk is our home now, she says. And if God loves us, we'll stay here.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.

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