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Iraqi general stirs dark memories in the north

The general with the easy smile has been here before. A little over a decade ago, Saddam Hussein dispatched him to this province where the oil wells belch orange flames day and night.

Now another Iraqi Arab leader has sent him north, in a battle of wills over Kirkuk that has awakened the past and raised fear of new fighting in the territory that the Kurds consider their Jerusalem. Already, one of his units has confiscated some Kurdish farmland for a base, stirring memories of Hussein’s attempts to uproot the Kurdish population and settle Arabs.

Maj. Gen. Abdul Amir Zaidi laughs at the rumors about him swirling in Kirkuk province, especially the one about him being related to Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who ordered Zaidi here to head a new Arab-led army division after he pulled out the Kurdish-led 4th division in July.

Zaidi is firm about what the government intends to do -- remove Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, from this bitterly disputed province, which is home to as much as 13% of Iraq’s oil reserves and borders the semiautonomous Kurdistan region.

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He makes it clear that the time has come for the peshmerga to leave Kirkuk province’s northern areas, though he insists that their departure will be the result of negotiations.

“What’s the point of the [peshmerga] going outside the boundaries of Kurdistan? When they do this, they are a militia carrying weapons,” he says.

Under Maliki’s orders, Zaidi’s division has begun dismantling the Kurds’ careful efforts since Hussein was ousted in 2003 to annex the province through a monopoly of local government power and mastery of the area’s security branches. Maliki’s government is finally asserting Baghdad’s authority, but the Kurds cannot forget how similar nationalist ambitions have ended in tragedy for them.

Kurds headed the old division, but Zaidi’s 13,000-man force is 75% Arab.

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In its eight months in Kirkuk, the Iraqi army has begun scouting roads in northern districts of the province, which had been considered the peshmerga’s domain.

All of this has come with no sign of a negotiated resolution of Kirkuk’s status between the Kurdish regional government and Baghdad. The province’s future is being debated in two national committees and awaits the suggestions of a United Nations report to be released next month. But most of those involved believe that the chance of a solution before the scheduled withdrawal of U.S. combat troops by August 2010 is wishful thinking.

The brinkmanship risks sparking a new Kurdish-Arab conflict if no solution is found by then -- and could do so sooner.

Aware of the dangers, the U.S. military has increased its presence from one battalion to a combat brigade in hope of putting Kirkuk on the right path.

Since the 12th Iraqi army division’s arrival, the Americans have already been called in to mediate confrontations that risked tipping over into violence.

The American commander in northern Iraq, Maj. Gen. Robert Caslen, says his soldiers have been able to cool tempers and establish communication channels between the sides. Despite such strides, he says there is still the risk that one side will open fire on the other.

“This situation right here is the most dangerous course of action for Iraq in the near future,” Caslen said. “It’s very important that Iraq gets it right. If we don’t, a lot of the change we’ve had over the last couple of years could go in a heartbeat as a result of something going wrong in those particular areas.”

For the Kurds, Zaidi is a symbol of all that has soured in their relationship with Prime Minister Maliki. In his black beret and olive fatigues, Zaidi represents the old regime to them, a figure intimately involved in northern Iraq’s history of struggle between Kurds and Arabs.

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In turn, Arab leaders have rallied to the general, seeing him as a counterbalance to the peshmerga. The Americans have praised Zaidi for moving cautiously as he expands the army’s role in Kurdish areas.

“He realizes every step he takes is something that has to be negotiated,” Caslen said.

On a recent night, the general slouched in an armchair and smoked several cigarettes in his office on the edge of the region’s flat gray oil fields.

He lets out a loud laugh at the rumors. Kurds say he was imprisoned by the Americans after the war, then released. Others say he participated in the 1980s Anfal campaign against the Kurds as a young officer, which he denies. He especially likes the one about being related to the prime minister.

“It would be an honor for me to be related to Maliki,” Zaidi says with zest. He swats away the allegations about jail time with another laugh and eases his massive frame back into his chair.

Even as he professes bonhomie and thrusts his ring finger to make a point, his words reveal strains between him and the Kurds. He reiterates that Kurdish forces should not be active in Kirkuk’s northern districts, which border Kurdistan: “This is outside their jurisdiction.”

He signals a similar opinion on Kurdistan’s intelligence service, which has more than 3,000 agents around the province and has been accused of abducting Arabs and Turkmens. They will be asked to leave when the national government deploys its own agents here, he says.

“We will tell [them], ‘Thank you for efforts. You did your duties. Go back to Kurdistan,’ ” Zaidi says.

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Zaidi, a 35-year army veteran, bristles at the charges he is tainted because of his association with the old regime.

The answers to Zaidi’s past resides in Daraman, on the northern plains of Kirkuk, where he headed the 15th brigade of the 1st division from 1996 to ’98.

Zaidi says he directed soldiers on training missions, but people from the few surviving towns in Kirkuk’s northern areas recount different memories of the army -- of soldiers beating Kurds for smuggling goods from Kurdistan, arresting others for driving on roads near the army’s bases, and locking up some just for looking at a soldier in town.

In the Anfal campaign, the Iraqi military evicted the majority of the Kurds, razed their homes and erected lemon-colored concrete barracks and a giant yellow-brick compound. Now, the land has changed once more, and Kurds have returned since 2003, gripping any deeds that prove their ownership of the land.

Kamal Salah, 35, moved into the abandoned military barracks and holds a copy of the confiscation papers issued by the Iraqi government when his family was expelled 22 years ago.

About a month ago, a convoy of Iraqi army officers pulled up and announced they were from the Ministry of Defense, he says.

“They were 25 and counting,” he says. “We were terrified.”

But he expresses resolve: “During Saddam’s time, it was taken from us. We shouldn’t leave.”

Jabar Yawar, deputy minister of the peshmerga, takes out his map, showing bases from Hussein’s time that he says Zaidi and Maliki want to reestablish.

The government’s expansion plans were pushed back in January after a confrontation in the northern town of Altun Kupri, when four Iraqi army Humvees drove in and were confronted by about 100 Kurds.

After American troops arrived and a meeting was brokered in Kirkuk, the army agreed to pull its troops out. But Zaidi warned that he was not bound by the decision to retreat, Yawar says.

Yawar worries that both sides will overreach and provoke the other when the Americans start to withdraw.

“In just one area, if a bullet is shot, it could light a fire,” he says.

In Altun Kupri, Haydar al Din Rashid, with gray stubble and sharp eyes, speaks fiercely about the four Iraqi trucks that came into his town.

“We heard Nouri Maliki sent those forces here,” he says, with a crowd of men around him, nodding and glaring. “The snake is the same snake as before.”

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ned.parker@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Contested province

The oil-rich province of Kirkuk, in Iraq’s north, is hotly contested by Kurds and Arabs, and also the region’s Turkmens.

Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, Kurds were expelled from the province and Arabs settled there in a campaign to keep it under Arab control.

Kurds want the government to implement Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, which calls for settling property disputes between Arabs and Kurds and eventually holding a referendum on whether the province should become part of Iraq’s Kurdish region.

The deadline for implementing Article 140 passed in December 2007 and the matter has been in limbo.

Many non-Kurds oppose the referendum, saying it would put Kirkuk’s oil in Kurdish hands and make non-Kurds in the region second-class citizens.

Source: Times reporting


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