The Question of Kurdistan
Altun Kopri, located between Kirkuk and an oilfield to the northwest--beyond the formal borders of Kurdistan--has long been a majority Turkmen town with a Turkmen name, but in the past two years it has become majority Kurdish. The town sits mostly on a sloping island in the Little Zab River surrounded by fertile flood plains and sandbars. The population here has almost doubled over these two years as Kurds move down from the north and Turkmen move up from Kirkuk and east from Mosul to escape the escalating violence.
This area around Kirkuk and the oilfields is a demographic battleground. Whether or not the north becomes independent, Kurdish leaders want this terrain under their formal control as part of Iraq's Autonomous Region of Kurdistan. And in preparation for the planned 2007 referendum on Kirkuk's fate, Kurdish militants seem to be creating facts on the ground. Turkmen say that activists from the PUK and KDP are usurping all the civil service jobs and political power. Some charge that the Kurds are busing in people from the north and registering them to vote in Altun Kopri. Regular Kurds on the street and the local KDP deny this.
"In Altun Kopri it is only tense, but Kirkuk is a time bomb ready to explode," says Adnan Zada, head of the local Turkmen Front. Despite Zada's claim that "we cannot have weapons because we are a minority," some of his men wear pistols tucked in their belts.
By most measures Kirkuk has already started to explode. A Turkmen house painter named Mohamed Ali (or, as he prefers, Chico) is headed home to Toronto after seeing family in Kirkuk. "There was shooting every night, car bombs. We just stayed inside for ten days," says the distraught Chico. "If I see a fire, am I gonna walk into it? No. I walk away. A lot of Turkmen are leaving." He says two high-ranking Turkmen policemen were assassinated while he was in Kirkuk and that there was one fairly big, unreported car bomb on October 1.
Worst of all for Chico was the night when men in police uniforms kidnapped his cousin and demanded $40,000 in ransom but settled for $20,000. He is convinced the abductors were cops from Sulaimaniya moonlighting as ethnic gangsters in Kirkuk. His brother had a house and a shop seized by armed Kurds. The brother moved to Istanbul, uncompensated.
Arabs are also under pressure in the area around Kirkuk. Just outside Altun Kopri lives Ahmed Hussein Ahmed, a Kurdish farmer who was driven out of his village in the 1980s and returned after the US-led invasion. "The Arabs who were brought here by Saddam are gone now. They knew that it was not their land and left without violence," says Ahmed. He says that several Arab villages around Altun Kopri have been completely abandoned.
These simmering ethnic tensions can be read as a prelude to national breakup or merely as an attempt by the Kurdish parties to accumulate more power and resources within a united Iraq--a violent preparation for the Kirkuk referendum in 2007. But if Turkmen and Arabs start to resist Kurdish political muscle by force and the peshmerga in turn escalate, accusing the Arab and Turkmen populations of being insurgents, the simmering violence could boil over into a full-scale war in the worst tradition of recent Iraqi history.
"We will use the Saddam plan," says Hameed Afandi, the KDP's Erbil-based minister of peshmerga affairs, when offering his solution to Iraq's security dilemmas. A guerrilla fighter since 1961, the lean short-haired chain-smoking Afandi speaks in forceful, heavily accented English as he insists that Kirkuk is Kurdish. His comments offer a glimpse of the possible worst-case scenario: "The Americans are too soft. We will kill terrorists in the middle of the street. We will destroy their houses and kill their families. We would be very hard with them!"