Insurgents Stir Up Strife In Kirkuk

Washington Times: Insurgents Stir Up Strife In Kirkuk

Supporters of the militant Shi’ite cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr are working with Saddam Hussein loyalists to foment ethnic strife in the contested northern city of Kirkuk, say Iraqi officials and residents.

They say Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi’s Army has recruited former Ba’ath Party security and intelligence officers in this oil-rich city to undermine efforts to reverse decades of ethnic cleansing under Saddam Hussein.

Saddam for years tried to “Arabize” Kirkuk by driving out native Kurds and Turkmen and giving their homes to Arabs — many of them Shi’ites relocated from the south.

Now, as Kurds try to reclaim their lost homes, Mahdi’s Army and its pro-Saddam allies are terrorizing Kurds while pressuring Arabs to remain in the city.

“While al-Sadr is battling U.S. forces in Najaf and Karbala, in Kirkuk his thugs are working among the Shi’ite Arab and Turkmen neighborhoods to stir just the kind of ethnic strife we all fear,” said a senior Kirkuk security official who requested anonymity.

They are the same men, he said, who once spied on their Shi’ite co-religionists for the former Sunni-dominated regime. “They have simply swapped their allegiances to Muqtada and are posing as Iraqi nationalists,” the police official said.

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Since the war, Kurds and Turkmen have been pressing to get their homes and property back. They can be seen camping out, destitute, across Kirkuk in abandoned factories, looted warehouses, even in the city’s soccer stadium.

Thousands wait impatiently in the Kurdish cities of Irbil and Sulaymaniyah, where they sought refuge after being expelled by Saddam. And they all want the Arab settlers to leave.

At first glance, Kirkuk’s shabby buildings and potholed streets give little hint as to why the city of 700,000 arouses such passions. But the confluence of ethnic and sectarian fault lines, plus its proximity to the country’s second-largest oil field make the success of Kirkuk pivotal to the future of Iraq.

“It is a microcosm of the country,” said Hasib Rojbiyani, Kirkuk’s deputy mayor. “All the nationalities and religions are here — Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs and Christians. If it works, then there is hope for a new Iraq. If it fails, then God help us all.”

During years of Ba’athist rule, he said, the city was milked for its oil while many of its people were tortured, deported or killed. “It is difficult to believe that a city could be so neglected and its population so traumatized,” Mr. Rojbiyani said.

Paul Harvey, a senior official with the Coalition Provisional Authority in Kirkuk, said the potential for confrontation in the city is great.

“Who controls Kirkuk and how it will fit into the new sovereign Iraq is a key issue for the future of the country,” he said. “Dismantling Saddam’s legacy will not be easy.”

The Iraqi interim constitution signed in March fudged the status of Kirkuk, leaving it until a permanent constitution is drawn up. Until then, people such as Mrs. Karim will live in limbo.

The torture chambers and mass graves are clearly only a part of Saddam’s legacy of destruction. The “Arabization” program is very much in keeping with the worst dictators of the 20th century, such as Stalin and Milosovek.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.