Northern Iraq city’s fragile ethnic mix perseveres

KIRKUK — Armed men fill the corridors of power in Kirkuk’s government building as police, soldiers and bodyguards trade fierce looks outside the offices of council members.

What the squabbling politicians and their retainers are not doing in this building, however, is shooting at each other, giving hope for the future of this multiethnic city.

Divided between Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and Assyrians, Kirkuk has longstanding interethnic grievances, crime, corruption, a fierce insurgency in the west of the province, but it also has a local government learning to work together.

“As a council we continue to do our best to keep meeting and dealing with each other and trying to solve our problems,” says Tahseen Kahya, a leading member of the Turkmen bloc in the council.

“We are suffering from political infighting,” he says from his office in the government building. “The problem with the council is the lack of trust, because any initiative from one group is always opposed by the others.”

He yearns for the day when members started representing more than just their ethnicity but actually working for the good of all people in the province, adding that “we need training.”

Half of the 41 members of the council are Kurds, along with nine Arabs, 11 Turkmen, and an Assyrian. The Kurds are all part of the Kurdish Brotherhood list which includes the Assyrian, two Turkmen and three Arabs, and dominates the council.

The Arabs, who boycotted the January 2005 provincial elections believe they are underrepresented and initially just refused to attend the council meetings.

“We as the Arab bloc have accomplished nothing for our people,” says Arab council member Muhammad Khalil outside the government building. “We are not getting our rights.”

US Major Victor Vasquez, the civil affairs officer for the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division in Kirkuk, however, sees massive improvement.

“When I got here, you couldn’t get these guys to agree the sky is blue,” he says. “Now they can agree in a unanimous vote on projects and priorities.”

Every one of Kirkuk’s ethnicities at one point controlled the city, with the Turkmen dominant in Ottoman times, Kurds prevailing subsequently while under Saddam Hussein, large numbers of Arabs were settled in the area.

With the fall of the old regime, many Kurds have returned to the city they were driven from decades before and many Arabs say they are feeling the pressure to leave.

In the emerging post-invasion politics of the city, Kurds had the immediate advantage of a decade outside Saddam’s control to hone their party skills and the Sulaimaniyah-based Patriotic Union of Kurdistan has muscled its way into a dominant position. “Our goal is to get Kirkuk under the Kurdish regional government,” says Rizgar Ali, the council’s chairman and staunch member of the PUK. “The oil will be gone one day but we will always love this land.”

In 2007 there will be a referendum for the province to see if it wants to join the Kurdish autonomous region and Arab fears over Kurdish efforts to take over the province are believed to be one of the factors fuelling the insurgency.

After years of close relations with the Kurds, US military and civilian officials are now working with the Arabs and Turkmen to build their political skills and train them to work like an opposition and force some compromises out of the Kurds.

The Turkmen, however, are divided by numerous political parties of their own, while the Arabs have at least three major tribes to divide their allegiance. Most importantly the two groups don’t see eye to eye at all.

A year since the provincial government was formed, the key position of deputy governor remains unfilled after the Kurds offered it to the Arabs and Turkmen.

“It’s kind of like having one chocolate bar that you can’t divide and giving it to two kids to decide over,” says a Western official with the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) working on developing Kirkuk’s governance.

Amid all the arguing and wrangling that seems to take up so much of the council’s time, however, work is getting done in some dozen committees looking at problems like services.

Baghdad has finally released about 10 per cent of the budget promised to Kirkuk, allowing the council, together with its US civilian and military advisers from the PRT, start devising reconstruction projects.

“We have serious problems that can’t be addressed without a budget,” says Governor Mustafa Abdel Rahman. “If we had this money the majority of our problems would be solved.

Baghdad’s delays in forming a government are felt acutely up in Kirkuk where the provincial government waits for the constitution to come into force so they can figure out exactly the extent of their powers.

A new government in Baghdad would also mean that elections for a new council could be held as well as releasing money to address compensation claims for Arabs and Kurds.

A system of compensation has been worked out for Arabs who have to give up their homes once owned by Kurds, but the money to pay out claims remains in Baghdad.

Then there is the matter of the oil running under the grassy fields of Kirkuk province, proceeds from which go straight to Baghdad.

“Kirkuk is a neglected city, Kirkuk is a rich city but we are getting nothing from these resources,” says the governor.

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