Kirkuk, Iraq’s simmering melting pot

Across a bleak desert landscape dotted with blazing oil fires on the northern edge of this ancient city, new houses are rising from the sands -- thousands of them in neat rows, mostly unfinished save for their gray cinder-block shells.

A startling sight in a country still waiting for any significant reconstruction to occur, it contains clues to the biggest of the unresolved conflicts in Iraq that could yet plunge the country into chaos as U.S. forces withdraw.

The homes are being built by Kurds who have poured into the northern province of Kirkuk to reassert, they say, their claim to land from which they were expelled by Saddam Hussein in an effort to create an Arab majority.

The oil fires illustrate the main reason the land is so hotly contested: Kirkuk is sitting on an estimated 10 billion barrels of oil and produces a quarter of Iraq’s current output. That’s enough to sustain an independent state should the Kurds get their way and annex the area to the largely autonomous Kurdistan enclave to the north -- and to bankrupt the state of Iraq should the revenue be lost.

Arabs and ethnic Turkmens, who also live here and want the province to remain under Iraqi control, are dismayed by the size of the Kurdish influx, which they say far exceeds the numbers driven out by Hussein. They suspect that Kurdish outsiders are moving to the area to influence the outcome of a referendum on whether to absorb Kirkuk into Kurdistan.

“It’s ridiculous. It’s impossible. The city is congested with people,” said Hussein Ali Saleh, who goes by the name Abu Saddam and heads the Arab Unity Bloc, the largest Arab political force in the province. “Kurds are clearly in the majority now. But most of them are not original Kirkukis.”

The dispute has contributed to delays threatening national elections scheduled for January, as members of parliament have squabbled over whether all those living in Kirkuk should be allowed to vote.

But it goes far deeper than that. At stake are existential questions about the identity of Iraq itself: Should it be a nation ruled by a strong central government in which all sects and ethnicities coexist? Or a looser federation of regions, such as the Kurdistan enclave, in which Iraq’s different communities have the right to determine their own governance?

The question promises to loom large over the upcoming elections, and risks embroiling Iraq in a new conflict, between Arabs and Kurds, and perhaps with Iraq’s neighbors, if it is not resolved peacefully by the time U.S. forces withdraw, said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group.

Turkey, Syria and Iran are watching closely, fearful that their own Kurdish minorities might seek independence if Kirkuk is annexed to Kurdistan. U.S. Army Gen. Ray Odierno has identified Arab-Kurdish tensions as the “No. 1 driver of instability” in Iraq.

“Kirkuk is the issue in Iraq,” Hiltermann said. “It’s all about oil, but it’s also about the identity of Iraq.”

Melting pot

In the heart of the city, evidence abounds of Kirkuk’s long history as a melting pot for the region’s sects and ethnicities.

In the bazaar hugging the foot of the ancient citadel that dominates the skyline, merchants call out their wares in Kurdish, Turkmen and Arabic. Signs in those three languages jostle for attention in the narrow alleyways crammed with stalls selling cheap plastic shoes, gaudy fabric and sticky traditional sweets.

In one crumbling stone alcove, Kurdish and Turkmen tailors work shoulder to shoulder on identical Singer sewing machines, stitching pants, jackets and skirts out of cheap cloth.

“The problems are only among the political parties. We Turkmen, Arab and Kurdish brothers live peacefully together,” said Abbas Kamal, 29, who is Turkmen. He wants Kirkuk to remain under Iraqi control, but he says he wouldn’t object if it became part of Kurdistan.

“We never have any problems here. We never have any political arguments,” agreed co-worker Awad Said, 37, a Kurd who never left Kirkuk. He would prefer that the province be annexed to Kurdistan, but says he wouldn’t mind if it wasn’t.

“The important thing is for us to live together,” he said.

There’s little sign here of the tensions that have inflamed tempers in Iraq’s parliament, and Kirkuk has escaped relatively unscathed from the sectarian violence that plagued much of the rest of Iraq a few years ago. The Sunni insurgency took its toll, as it did elsewhere, but violence is sharply down, and there have been none of the sectarian massacres that ravaged Baghdad from 2005 to ’07.

Nonetheless, some residents say they see worrying indicators that the political fissures are starting to reach the streets. Recently, a Turkmen shot to death a Kurd at the edge of the bazaar. Police attributed the incident to a personal quarrel, but they found a picture of Hussein in the killer’s home on which he had written, “Life is worthless without you,” suggesting political undertones to the killing.

When two Kurds were caught recently trying to extract ransoms for two kidnapped Turkmen children, inevitably ethnic tensions were inflamed.

“The original Kurds of Kirkuk are peaceful people, and we can all live together,” said Layla Alef, 56, a Turkmen who runs a shoe wholesale business in the bazaar with a Kurdish partner. “The problem is with the strangers, the newcomers.

“If you look at all the building going on on the outskirts of the city, we’re surrounded by Kurds. They’re practically occupying us.”

Two waves

But the Kurds building the houses on the edge of the city say the problem is far more complex than “strangers” versus traditional residents.

Many of those interviewed say their families were ejected from their homes in 1963, in an earlier wave of Arab persecution of Kurds that predates the Hussein era and has largely been forgotten. These Kurds aren’t eligible for the government compensation given to returning Kurds displaced by the former regime, so they don’t show up in the records.

Their presence may go some way toward explaining the demographic mystery at the heart of the dispute.

Records show that 92,000 returning Kurdish families have applied for compensation, and that 28,000 Arab families settled there by Hussein have applied for compensation to leave. So Arabs and Turkmens ask why the total population in the province has jumped from a little over 800,000 in 2003 to 1.3 million today.

Kurdish officials say no non-Kirkukis are among the new arrivals. “Why would they risk their lives to come to Kirkuk, where it is more unstable, and put their family at the risk of suicide bombers?” asked Babaker Sidiq, who heads the committee charged with helping resettle displaced Kurds and relocated Arabs.

One possible reason: Each family relocating from Kurdistan to build in the area receives a little over $6,000 from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the dominant Kurdish party, to help with costs, the families say. They also have been given plots of land by the Kurdish-controlled municipal council.

All sides agree on one thing: The 1957 census, the last one untainted by “ethnic cleansing,” should be used as the basis for determining who should be allowed to vote in the referendum. That showed the city with a majority Turkmen population, but the province to be largely Kurdish.

But it is clear that many of the Kurds living in Kirkuk hadn’t been born there.

“This is the place where my father was born and my ancestors are buried. I visit their graves every day,” said Ali Fatah, 40, who moved into his new house near the oil fields three months ago. “I feel connected here.

“But of course I want to belong to Kurdistan, because it’s run by Kurds. The Iraqi government never did anything for us.”

Meanwhile, over the decades, the size of these expelled families has grown exponentially.

Mohammed Mohammed Ali, 70, who has four brothers and seven children, said he and his immediate relatives left four houses when they were driven out in 1963.

After spending decades in Kurdistan, they have returned with many new members, to build 16 homes.

“If you include all my relatives, we are building more than 50 houses,” he said outside one of the new homes, the sickly sweet odor of burning oil from the wells hanging heavily in the air.

Times staff writer Caesar Ahmed contributed to this report.