The Kurds take Kirkuk

Election Day was jubilant for Kurds returning to the oil-rich city. But if rivals question the vote, they might call in reinforcements.

By Quil Lawrence

Published January 31, 2005 4:15PM (EST)

Hoshyar Darbandi made a quick trip to his hometown of Kirkuk this week to cast his vote. Leaving his wife and kids behind in Stockholm, Sweden, he may have the honor of being the Kurd who came the farthest to make it to the polls. Darbandi could have voted for the new Iraqi parliament from a safe distance in any number of European cities that allowed Iraqi exiles to vote, but he wanted to come home to vote in Sunday's local elections. To Kurds, who wins the local race in Kirkuk is as important as who eventually becomes prime minister in Baghdad. Maybe more: Most Kurds don't care if Baghdad continues slipping into an anarchic black hole. Kirkuk, they'd like to keep.

"We've never written our own history," said Darbandi, as he walked from a polling station at the end of Election Day. "It's always been forced on us." Darbandi walks comfortably through the crowd here, though his haircut, his boots and his new ski jacket give him away as a returned exile. Like hundreds of thousands of Kurds, he was driven out of this part of Iraq during Saddam Hussein's Arabization campaign in the 1980 and '90s. Darbandi fled to Iran in 1984 at age 22 and then was granted asylum in Sweden. Now he'd like to move his young children back to Iraq. But he doesn't call it Iraq. To him this is Kurdistan, and Kirkuk is the jewel in the crown.

Kirkuk is one of the spots where an Iraqi civil war is supposed to start. Analysts in Washington often neatly divide Iraq into a homogenous Shiite south, a de facto Kurdish state in the north and a troublesome Sunni wedge in the center. The idea has some merit. In many ways, Iraq makes more sense in three than in one. But as some sort of partition passes in and out of vogue with talking heads, Kirkuk remains a big bump in the road map.

Kurds say the city is their Jerusalem. A sizable Turkoman minority says Kirkuk has always been theirs. Arabs living here are terrified -- some rightly and some wrongly -- that they'll be punished for the Arabization campaign that Saddam waged here when he evicted or killed Kurds and gave their homes to poor Arabs from the south along with large cash payments.

Holding a census here to find out who is the real majority would probably unite the city briefly; everyone would criticize the findings before the open warfare began. But Sunday's voting may achieve the same result. And if some people consider the results foul when the final count is in, perhaps a week to 10 days from now, they may call in support from the outside. The Kurdish parties to the north have over 60,000 militiamen (and some women) to back up their claim. The Turkomans have an ethnic and possibly military link to the Turkish capital, Ankara. Some Turkomans and many Arabs are Shiite Muslims, with links to Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani or the more militant Muqtada al-Sadr. And, of course, the Sunnis already have the sympathy of the insurgents.

What's amazing is that almost no one here struggling for power in Kirkuk mentions that the place is swimming in oil -- maybe a fifth of Iraq's massive reserves. Even putting that significant asset aside, people seem willing to fight for Kirkuk. Let's just hope they did their fighting at the polls.

Since the U.S. invasion, Kurds have been flocking to Kirkuk. One, Haybad Rostum, turned to her son when asked her age -- he said without much certainty that she's 56. She has borne 12 children and lived most of her life as a Kurd in Saddam's Iraq; it's no wonder she looks older. I met her this week in Kirkuk, but this is not her home. Until this month, she was living in Hawija, south and west of here.

Hawija wasn't part of the Kurdish autonomous zone under Saddam. Haybad says she and her family suffered then, but they knew how to follow the rules and stay alive under the Arab Baathists who controlled the city. But in the power vacuum left by the U.S. invasion, she says, the same old Baathists have taken over, and they blame the Kurds for helping the Americans. After months of threatening letters and graffiti, nine Kurds were assassinated in Hawija last month. One of them was Haybad's nephew. Haybad, as well as hundreds of other Kurdish families, picked up and left for Kirkuk.

After decades of fleeing or being forced from Kirkuk because of Saddam's ethnic cleansing, they've been coming back here these last two years as a place of refuge. Their return is bittersweet. I sat in Haybad's house, and as her sons and nephews slowly filled the room, another bit of irony hit me -- I realized I'd been here on the day Kirkuk fell in April 2003. This was an Arab neighborhood then, and I was interviewing Shiite Arabs who were all afraid Kurds were going to come back and commit a little reverse ethnic cleansing. It may not have been the same house, but Haybad and her sons have moved into a neighborhood the Kurds have taken over from fleeing Arabs. It's like musical chairs. When the Kurds try to declare an autonomous zone, Hawija may be left standing with the Arabs, but Kirkuk is going to be firmly seated in Kurdistan. The Kurdish politicians keep saying they have no intention of declaring independence. But at the same time, they sanctioned a referendum during Sunday's vote asking if Kurds would prefer to stay in Iraq. The result is a foregone conclusion.

What may have delivered Kirkuk to the Kurds had to do with refugees, but not those like Haybad. At the last minute, the Kurdish leadership managed to secure voting rights for about 100,000 returnees who don't have official residency. The Kurds see it as redressing the crimes of the past. But to the Arabs and Turkomans in town, it looks like stacking the voter rolls. The sometimes bombastic Turkoman Front representative in Kirkuk, Fowzi Akram, told me before that Election Day this "cheating" was making the Kurdish victory a certainty. Akram said that meant civil war is just around the corner. He sat in his office in the center of the city as his assistants loaded up their trucks with pamphlets and Turkoman fanfare.

"When the civil war comes to Iraq, it will bring a fire so hot it will burn the wet with the dry," he said. Then he gave me a Turkoman Front flag, a Turkoman Front lighter and a stainless steel watch with their symbol on the faceplate. On Election Day, the Front didn't make trouble and the streets around his office were deserted.

Like the Afghan elections last fall, no one can really say if Iraq's were fair. Almost no one was willing to risk sending international monitors. I didn't see any outright cheating, but the playing fields were as crooked as the day is long. The night before the election, I took a tour of one voting station in the Kurdish neighborhood of Shorja. Pictures of Kurdish leaders Jalal Talabani and Masoud Barzani were still hanging over the door to the voting booths. The manager said he had forgotten to take them down and quickly covered up the portraits, mostly, with a few sample ballots.

On Sunday morning, the polling stations in Shorja were packed with voters. At one, I saw a line of more than a thousand men and women with their kids, everyone in Sunday best. The men wore suits, the women long dresses and gold coin jewelry. Their numbers constantly replenished as the day wore on. It wasn't long before the Kurds started to party -- even a couple of years on, many still can't believe that they're finally back in Kirkuk. Along the streets hung Kurdish flags the size of billboards. Kurdish men and women danced to drums in something between a stomp and a Texas line dance.

The sight of a long line in a public place made me shiver; on a typical day in Baghdad, it would be an invitation to a car bomb. But the security lockdown was working in Kirkuk. There were only two attacks during the voting. Early in the morning someone fired a mortar into a stadium full of Kurdish returnees. A 16-year-old boy named Yusef Nejem died. No matter how much they patrol or enforce curfews, the U.S. forces can't so far stop the mortars, rockets or roadside bombs. Another mortar wounded three in an Arab neighborhood late in the afternoon.

The Kurds weren't the only ones sending not-so-subtle suggestions to voters. The streets in Turkoman areas were covered in graffiti, including blue Turkish crescents and the number of the Turkoman party on the ballot. The mood in those parts of town wasn't so jubilant, but there was still voting. Other places were downright tense. Some of my BBC colleagues had been filming in a market early this week when a few Arabs urgently whispered to them that it wasn't safe. Kirkuk is still a border town between the chaos in the south and the relative peace in the north.

Arabs in Kirkuk didn't appear to be voting in the same enthusiastic numbers as other ethnic groups. The main Sunni parties boycotted the polls, and there were American attack helicopters zooming around the city, which may explain any hesitance to go vote. With a Kurdish driver and translator, it was risky, but we stopped for what was supposed to be a quick visit at a middle school in Hy Nassir, a solidly Arab quarter.

The visit got long all of a sudden. Despite the letter-size Election Commission sticker on our windshield, the Arab police around the station greeted us at about 40 yards with a few shots in the air. My colleague Ayub Nuri, a Kurdish journalist with perfect Arabic, shouted and pointed to the sticker and we slowly approached. The cops fired off about a dozen rounds with their AK-47s -- and it wasn't clear just how high over our heads they were aiming.

We turned the car around, amid shouts of "Journalist!" out the window in Arabic and a mishmash of Kurdish and English orders and expletives inside the car. Many Iraqi police wear ski masks for their own protection, and the sight of four of them running toward our car with their guns leveled was reminiscent of Fallujah. Suddenly, we were jumping out of the car with our hands up.

After a few moments, our disbelief turned into fear, and then ridicule, as the men giggled and apologized to us. You should have had a bigger sticker on your car, they told us, as if we could have asked for one from the American major who had given out credentials.

But we'd been made, and badly. The neighborhood knew we were there, and suddenly everyone down the block looked a little mean. (Kirkuk is about as far south as you can go before the total red zone of the Sunni triangle. Insurgents can move in Sunni areas with ease.) The guys on the corner cheered up with a little conversation, but they said they couldn't promise our safety beyond that block. The police showed us around the polling station and bragged about a good turnout among Arab voters. Then they advised us to wait for a patrol car to escort us out of the area. We waited an hour for the cruiser they called, and then gave up and just made a bolt for the highway, without incident.

Turkoman neighborhoods also reported a high turnout, though the suspicion of a fix being involved never quite vanished. At the day's end, the polling station at Al Tisayn, a middle school, was close to empty, but the administrators said they'd had more than 2,000 voters during the day. The staff represented a good slice of Kirkuk: a Kurd, a Turkoman, a Christian and an Arab. "You see the whole Iraqi family here," said Omar Muhamad, a Kurdish engineer working at the center. Nearby a Turkoman newspaperman, also on staff, agreed. "Yesterday everyone was afraid; today we all feel very strong." But then he went on, "Still, we have heard that in Shorja, the Kurds are not allowing Turcomans to vote."

"Excuse me -- but did you see this? Speak of what you saw," said Muhamad, the Kurdish engineer, who hadn't walked so far away.

"No, please, I am speaking. He is not letting me speak," said the Turkoman, who wouldn't give his name.

"There was no problem, but some mistakes. And some groups want to make trouble," he continued. "This is the first time we've tried this in Iraq. Maybe next time it will be normal."

He was right about the groups wanting to make trouble in Kirkuk. After a quiet Election Day, intense gunfire, mortars and American jets were heard late into the night.

Quil Lawrence

Quil Lawrence is a BBC journalist who covers Afghanistan and Iraq for the World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, Public Radio International and WGBH in Boston.

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