By 9 am on April 10, the day Kirkuk fell, columns of Iraqi troops who were supposed to be defending the city fled to the Baghdad Garage, the main transportation terminal, and stripped off their uniforms and boots. Barefoot, they fled south to the capital. By noon, the looting in Kirkuk had begun. In the multiethnic Arab, Turkmen and Kurdish city, it was primarily the Kurds who smashed the windows of the state-owned supermarket and hurled bolts of pink fabric, carpets, cooking oil, desk chairs and rice over the fence. The more ambitious went to the airport, hijacked Iraqi tanks and careered around the liberated town.
“I used to drive a tank in the Iraqi Army,” Nawzan Barzilini, 32, shouted down from his new acquisition. “I came this morning to fight for Kirkuk, but the soldiers ran away.” Barzilini is one of the thousands of Kurdish fighters, peshmerga, who unexpectedly poured into Kirkuk that morning long before the Americans arrived. Many, like Barzilini, were not following orders. He said he simply picked up a Kalashnikov and followed his comrades as they rushed in. He argued that liberating the city was his duty as a Kurd and that he was entitled to the spoils of the Baathist regime.
In the early hours, the stunned locals didn’t realize the Iraqis were gone until truck after gun-mounted truck of peshmerga in yellow and green bandannas rattled into the city, accompanied by a handful of journalists. I watched the faces of dazed Kirkukis change from shock to jubilation to frenzy as they surrounded our cars, clamoring onto the hood. One man, Jabar, thrust his head in a car window and said in English long out of use, “I love the USA.” Children held up bunches of yellow flowers and Kurdish flags as the adults covered their mouths with their hands and ululated.
At first, it was easy to laud Kirkuk’s liberation as a model for the peaceful transition of power in Iraq. The city’s walls are scrawled with “Thank you Mr. Bousch.” The city’s frightened Arabs made their way into the streets. One Arab man driving a truck from an oil refinery was pulled from his car and shot in the street, but it was an isolated incident. A Kurdish passerby stopped to cover him with a blanket. For the most part, Kirkuk seemed to have avoided the sudden violence of Mosul. Yet as the days passed, the presence in Kirkuk of men like Barzilini–part fighter, part looter–threatened the calm. Kirkuk’s Arabs and Turkmen have become furious at all the looting by lawless men claiming to be peshmerga, and they’re beginning to fight back. Turkey’s anxiety over the Kurds is also rising, and the transition of control over Kirkuk’s oilfields promises additional complications.
Turkey’s refusal to let the United States use it as a staging area for the war produced some unintended consequences. The slow arrival of US forces in Kirkuk gave the Iraqi Army there time to watch events unfold in the south and to surrender without much bloodshed. But it also left the United States dependent on a Kurdish fighting force. The day the city fell, the Americans were nowhere to be seen. Protecting the oilfields fell to a force of 700 Kurdish fighters, who could do little as Northern Oil, an Iraqi-owned company, was looted and the smoke from a series of fires lit the horizon. Only at nightfall did the 173rd Airborne arrive. “It was like the Los Angeles riots,” said one American soldier as he patrolled the burning fields the next morning.
For now, Kirkuk’s oil is in US hands. Though Turkish observers have yet to arrive, the peshmerga have begun pulling out of the city without incident. After their unscheduled invasion, even the Kurdish fighters are trying to sound diplomatic.
“We are happy to let America control the oil,” says Brigadier Rostum, a senior commander of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s military force. “Even if they keep most of it and we benefit only a little bit, it will be the first time that Kurds receive anything from oil. Besides, this is not about oil, it’s about freedom.” But this is still the first week, and, even so, ripples are beginning to disturb Kirkuk’s surface.
As the peshmerga claim to pull out, the Arabs are calling for blood. They feel that they were victims of Saddam, too, so why, they ask, should they now be victims of Kurdish looting? In Mosul, angry vigilante groups have set stones in the road to check cars against incoming Kurds. It is not yet clear whether street fighting here will be next. Soon, 120,000 Kurdish families, displaced since 1991, will start to return home, and political assertions by Turkmen groups, supported by Turkey, will begin to emerge–and what good will gratitude be then? Rebuilding Kirkuk in this brittle political climate will show whether a coalition between hostile ethnic groups is at all possible in Iraq.
The battle for Kirkuk raises questions about Syria as well. While the city fell easily, there were some fierce pockets of resistance by fedayeen loyalists and foreign mercenaries. As Kurds in the north of the city spent the afternoon tugging down statues of Saddam, near the former secret police headquarters a cluster of fighters refused to surrender. Finally, after a gun battle lasting several hours, the peshmerga advanced to find several dead bodies of the fedayeen. One was still alive, though badly beaten, his black tunic covered in blood. As he sat on the curb, several peshmerga discussed whether to kill him. The man held his head in his hands as this conversation went on, saying only that he had come from Syria fifteen days earlier to fight for Saddam.
The Bush Administration’s claims about the presence of chemical weapons in Syria smack of propaganda, but the presence of these Syrian fighters in Kirkuk may be spun by Washington as evidence of a relationship between Syria and Saddam.
In the short term, Kirkuk has descended into a stunned sense of order, but these quiet days are likely to give way to explosions of older, deep-seated resentments. Already Arabs are accusing the incoming Kurds of brutality reminiscent of fascism. The United States in its limited role as policeman can maintain order for now, and helped set up a governing committee of six Kurds, six Arabs and six Turkmen that will soon begin to meet, offering at least a fig leaf of transethnic cooperation. But whether, in the long term, any occupying force can mediate the longstanding ethnic divisions is an open question. The challenge before Washington is whether it has the will and the way to establish the presence necessary to truly rebuild the city and not just keep an uneasy peace.