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Kirkuk: a ticking time bomb in volatile north Iraq

KIRKUK, Iraq (Reuters) - Haji Mohammed Ismail, a tribal elder in Kirkuk, home to one of Iraq’s biggest oilfields, is bracing for the worst once U.S. troops leave the country and Arab and Kurd face off with no one to halt the fight.

U.S. soldiers secure an area during a visit by Fletcher Burton (not pictured), the chief of the Kirkuk province reconstruction team (PRT), to a market in Kirkuk, 250 km (155 miles) north of Baghdad, November 10, 2010. REUTERS/Ako Rasheed

“As soon as U.S. forces leave Iraq, there will be civil war. In a place like this, the strongest will devour the weakest,” said Ismail, 80, an Iraqi Arab, as he leaned over a mud brick wall in his village near the disputed northern city.

“There is a lot of tension. People are being thrown out of their homes and humiliated. They want revenge. Something bad is going to happen.”

Ismail’s anguish was echoed by ordinary people and Iraqi officials alike in Kirkuk, whose sun-bleached plains are dotted with blazing oil fires flickering like torches in the haze.

The region is believed to be sitting atop four percent of global oil reserves and is attractive to foreign investors, but exploration has been blocked by fears of fresh violence.

In this low-rise city of dust and squat houses, the faint smell of oil is a constant reminder of the riches that lie under the sand, and Arabs and Kurds both claim Kirkuk as their own.

As violence fades in other parts of the country, the row is seen as a chief threat to Iraq’s efforts to restore stability after years of sectarian violence, and could yet plunge the province into bloodshed when U.S. troops pull out next year.

Tensions have flared ahead of a census, slated for December after several delays -- a crucial event because it might determine if Kurds are now the biggest ethnic bloc in Kirkuk.

The Arab-led central government recently said it might delete a question about ethnicity from the survey, prompting outrage among Kurds who fear that would deprive them of an opportunity to prove that Kirkuk -- and the vast lake of oil that lies beneath it -- is rightfully theirs.

Arab families have accused Kurds of forcing them to leave in order to tilt the demographic balance, prompting U.S. forces to step up joint patrols with Iraqi soldiers in disputed areas.

The feud dates back to Saddam Hussein’s “Arabisation” push that uprooted thousands of Kurds and leveled their villages in the 1980s. After 2003, Kurds returned en masse and want to fold Kirkuk into their semi-autonomous northern enclave of Kurdistan -- a move the Arab-led government in Baghdad is loath to allow.

Unlike restive Kirkuk, Kurdistan is relatively peaceful. It has been successful in luring investors and rebuilding its cities, signing about 40 deals with international oil companies.

Highlighting the political risks investors face and the potential for a protracted and worsening dispute over Kirkuk, Baghdad considers all deals signed by the Kurdish Regional Government illegal as Iraq’s oil and gas are federal resources.

The dispute has halted exports from the northern region.

The United States formally ended combat operations in Iraq in August, more than seven years after its troops ousted Saddam Hussein, and says Iraq is a much safer place.

Stationed on a dusty Saddam-era military outpost outside Kirkuk, U.S. forces have long provided a buffer in the Arab-Kurdish conflict and tried to pacify the old adversaries.

U.S. commanders said they were aware of the latest round of tension in Kirkuk and were ready to deal with any new flare-ups.

“In and around the census time there will be a lot of emotion,” said Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Holland. “People will go into the streets to demonstrate. If someone really feels they have been shut out then there could be violent episodes.”

The contested areas, which include other areas besides Kirkuk, are thought to contain up to 13 percent of Iraq’s proven oil reserves, but the stakes are broader than just oil.

Protracted wrangling over a new government, eight months since an inconclusive vote, has cast Kurds as kingmakers, and they are pressing Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to heed their claims over Kirkuk in exchange for backing him for a new term.

Disputes over Kirkuk have come close to violence in the past but so far have been largely limited to angry rhetoric.

Speaking underneath a portrait of President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, General Turhan Yussef, deputy head of Kirkuk city police, said the fragile balance could unravel rapidly.

“U.S. forces are leaving too early. They preserve a certain balance that keeps the situation stable,” he said. “If they leave before a solution is found, that would be a deadly decision.”

Asked if open hostilities were possible, he paused and added: “Yes, that is probably what will happen.”

With its fate undecided and investment sidelined, Kirkuk remains a depressed place, many of its neighborhoods devoid of basic services like clean water and electricity.

“If I was an oil company I wouldn’t want to come here,” said Colonel Larry Swift, commander of U.S. forces in Kirkuk. “So once that uncertainty is eliminated, I think oil investment here will dwarf any of the foreign aid that the province is getting.”

VIOLENCE

On a hilltop north of Kirkuk, Ali Hassan al-Majeed, the Saddam aide who oversaw the Anfal campaign of attempted annihilation against Kurds, once owned a lavish villa. Majeed, also known as Chemical Ali, was executed in January and a senior Kurdish official now lives on the hill.

The surrounding plains are dotted with new flat-roof blocks -- built by thousands of Kurds who have poured back since 2003.

A referendum on Kirkuk’s status was supposed to have been held no later than December 2007 but was shelved after Arabs and Turkmen accused Kurds of flooding the city with their kin.

The unrelated census has also been delayed several times because of fears it would trigger bloodshed if Kurds proved to be the most numerous community in the city.

Its beat-up streets lined with crumbling house-fronts and strewn with rubbish, Kirkuk appeared to seethe with emotions.

Speaking outside her shop, Shatha Abdul Wahid, an Arab woman, said her family had been receiving threats since early September to pack up their belongings and leave the city.

“When they came, they said: you must leave Kirkuk,” said Wahid, 33, her face alternating between fear and anger.

She refused to describe the perpetrators, shaking her head in fear: “We want to stay here. Please God help us. But if they come again, we will have to leave.”

Mumtaz Mohamed, 53, said one of his Arab neighbors had to pay $1,700 this month to unidentified men to be able to stay in his house.

Another woman, Suham Ahmed, 37, also a shop owner, said 16 Arab families in her neighborhood had left Kirkuk for other parts of Iraq after receiving threats over the last two months.

“Before it was much better. Now it’s only getting worse,” she said. “People are very afraid.”

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