Kurds Take Northern Prize, But Win May Be Shortlived
By Mohamad Bazzi
April 11, 2003
Kirkuk, Iraq -- Kurdish and U.S. forces captured this oil-rich city yesterday
without much of a fight when the Iraqi soldiers stationed here simply fled.
Several thousand Kurdish fighters began streaming into Kirkuk yesterday morning,
soon after Iraqi troops had abandoned the city. The Kurds arrived in more than
100 vehicles cars, pickup trucks, tractors, fire engines and even a garbage
truck waving the flags of the two major parties that rule the
Kurdish-controlled region of northern Iraq.
As the Kurdish militiamen began taking victory laps around the city, people ran
out of their homes, cheering and throwing rice and rose petals at the fighters.
The city was jubilant throughout the day and night, with car horns and
celebratory gunfire echoing through boulevards lined with trees and arched brick
Wresting control of Kirkuk has long been a dream of the Kurds, who suffered
massacres, mass deportations and a chemical weapons attack under Saddam
Hussein's rule. But for the United States, Kirkuk is a tricky landscape steeped
in centuries of conflict.
By entering the city, which is home to Iraq's oldest and largest oil fields,
Kurdish militias broke a promise to the United States and Turkey that they would
stay out of the biggest prize in northern Iraq. Turkey had threatened to send
thousands of its troops into northern Iraq if the Kurdish parties moved into
U.S. officials moved quickly yesterday to assure Turkey that the city would not
remain in Kurdish hands for long. Secretary of State Colin Powell said he
reached an agreement with Turkish leaders to have Kurdish forces pull back from
Kirkuk soon, and to allow Turkey to send a small group of monitors into the
Kirkuk "will be under American control," said White House spokesman Ari
Fleischer. About 200 U.S. Special Forces troops entered the city with Kurdish
fighters yesterday morning, and they were joined later by several hundred
members of the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade. But the Pentagon would need many
more troops to unilaterally control the city of 1 million people.
U.S. military planners have long said they would move into Kirkuk swiftly to
secure the oil fields and keep the vying parties from igniting a second conflict
within the wider Iraq war. If U.S. officials succeed, Kirkuk could become a
model for a transitional government seeking to bring together Iraq's different
ethnic groups, including Kurds, Turkomans and Arabs. If the effort fails, Kirkuk
could unravel into a free-for-all of competing interests and deep ethnic and
The United States had planned to send 62,000 troops into the Kurdish area
through Turkey. Those troops were expected to take control of Kirkuk and another
key northern city, Mosul, and then push south to the Iraqi capital. But Turkey's
refusal to allow U.S. ground troops and heavy armor to deploy from its soil left
the 138-mile-long northern front in the hands of poorly armed Kurdish guerrillas
and a small number of U.S. Special Forces.
Kirkuk is an ethnic tinderbox waiting to blow. Under Hussein's rule, about
100,000 Kurds were forced out of the city and surrounding villages in a campaign
of "Arabization," intended to populate the area with Arabs loyal to the Baghdad
regime. Kurdish leaders say Kurds who sought refuge in the northern enclave will
likely head back to their homes in the Kirkuk region and reclaim the land they
lost to Arabs. Many of the returning refugees will be armed, and confrontations
could become bloody.
The Kurdish parties view Kirkuk as the ancient seat of Kurdistan and believe it
should be the capital of their region in a newly formed Iraqi federation. Turkey
fears that if Iraqi Kurds expand their autonomous zone to Kirkuk, they would be
a step closer to declaring independence, and that would trigger similar
aspirations among the 12 million Kurds in Turkey.
A Turkish incursion in northern Iraq would create regional instability, Kurdish
officials warn. Iraq's other neighbors -- especially Syria and Iran, which have
large Kurdish minorities -- would see a Turkish presence in the north as a
threat to their security and could be tempted to send their own troops into
"It could open a Pandora's box that would destabilize the entire region," said
Fareed Asasard, director of the Kurdish Strategic Studies Center, based in the
city of Sulaimaniyah. "Even if Syria and Iran don't send troops in after Turkey,
they would try undermine the Turkish presence by using some of the Iraqi
The political uncertainty did not dampen the celebration in Kirkuk. All day,
hundreds of people gathered in Arafat Square at the city's center, dancing and
singing Kurdish nationalist songs.
"This is the happiest day of my life," said Majid Zowar Ahmed, 43, a Kurdish
shop owner who brought his two daughters, 7 and 8, to the square. "I wanted my
children to know that now we can live a free life, under a government that
treats us with dignity and respect."
Earlier in the day, the bodies of two dead Iraqi soldiers lay in the middle of
the square near the base of a statue of Hussein, wearing an Arab tribal gown and
headdress another attempt by the Iraqi regime to stamp out the city's Kurdish
A crowd of about 100 people tore down a chain barrier and wrapped it around the
statue, and several young men heaved together trying to bring it down. When that
failed, they went into the street to beg passing cars to stop and help. Finally,
an old fire engine driven by Kurdish fighters stopped. The chain was tied to the
front of the truck, and it backed up, bringing down the statue with a thud.
Dozens in the crowd jumped on the fallen statue, firing celebratory gunshots
into it and hitting Hussein's face with their shoes. The letters "USA" were
spray painted on the statue's base.
Others climbed up on the bare pedestal and held up posters of the two main
Kurdish leaders: Jalal Talabani, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and
Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. One man raised a
yellow hand-written sign, "We Are Free. Thank You Mr. Bush."
Not everyone was as complimentary to the United States. Some recalled that
Washington had strongly supported Hussein and his Baathist regime for nearly two
decades, and turned a blind eye even after he killed 5,000 Kurds with chemical
weapons in the city of Halabjah in 1988.
"The Americans built up Saddam Hussein, and now they have destroyed him," said
Shorish Salah, 37, an unemployed engineer. "America is trying to make up for its
big sin in Iraq."
Kurdish militias controlled Kirkuk once before for three euphoric days at the
end of the 1991 Gulf War, when President George Bush urged Iraqis to rise up
against Hussein. The Kurds led an uprising in northern Iraq and captured Kirkuk,
but they did not receive backing from the United States, and the rebels were
Kirkuk's ancient ruins date back 3,000 years and sit above a huge source of oil.
The Kirkuk oil fields are among the richest in Iraq, producing 800,000 barrels
per day out of a total national output of 1.7 million barrels permitted under
the United Nations-sponsored oil-for-food program. Beneath Kirkuk, there are 10
billion barrels of proven reserves. The city is also the origin of the Iraqi
pipeline that pumps oil to the Mediterranean coast. There will be a race in
Kirkuk not only to control the oil but also the municipal files.
Those files contain the old housing and land deeds that will be needed to
establish ownership of Kurdish property that was confiscated and turned over to
Arab families. Kurdish officials worry that land disputes could turn violent. "I
can't say there won't be any revenge attacks and that things won't get out of
hand in some places. That could happen," said Shalaw Askari, a member of the
central committee of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. "But I don't think it
will be widespread."