Iraq's Model City Kirkuk Thrives in Sea of Corruption and Violence

Ten years after the US invasion, Iraq is still plagued by sectarian violence, poverty and corruption. The northern city of Kirkuk, however, has defied predictions to emerge as a model of inter-ethnic reconciliation and relatively efficient government.


It promises to be a quiet day. Only one guard is posted on the front line in the clay hills 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Kirkuk, in northern Iraq. The other men drink tea under the awning of a tent and wait to see if the "Tigris Forces," an army sent from Baghdad and under the personal command of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, will attack.

The Kurdish fighters have been waiting at this hilltop location for more than three months. First they dug trenches. Then they brought tanks and anti-aircraft missiles into position. Later, they dragged ovens, TV sets and carpets up to the hills.

The Tigris Forces are in the valley below. "They are better equipped militarily," says Kurdish General Mohammed Saidar, "but we are peshmerga," the Kurdish fighters who supposedly have no fear of death, "and we don't give up. If necessary, we'll go back into the mountains and fight as partisans!"

Officially, the premier's army was sent to Kirkuk late last year to fight terrorism. The mission of the several thousand soldiers with the "Tigris Operations Command" was to gain control of the city.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) promptly mobilized its own troops, and the two armies have been facing off ever since -- despite the fact that both belong to the security forces of the some country and their leaders recognize the same president, Jalal Talabani. However, after suffering a serious stroke, Talabani is currently in therapy at a rehabilitation clinic in Germany, barely able to speak.

Ten years after the United States and its allies invaded Iraq and rapidly toppled then-dictator Saddam Hussein, and after years of civil war and an uneasy peace, divisions of combat-ready Iraqis are being pitted against and prepared to shoot each other.

When they withdrew from Iraq in late 2011, the Americans hoped to leave behind a democratic country. Iraq's enormous oil reserves, the thinking went, could easily provide the country with peace and prosperity. In early 2013, Iraqi oil production surpassed 3 million barrels a day and pushed ahead of Iranian production.

But the billions in revenues are not reaching ordinary people, and Iraq still isn't at peace even a decade after the war began. Maliki's plan to bring the country under the control of his Shiite troops has incensed Sunnis and Kurds. The premier has his army march under the black banner of the Shiites, as it fires on Sunni protestors and police officers. Feuding mafia-like cartels commit murder, and corruption is eating away at the nation. Bombs explode almost daily. On Tuesday alone, almost 20 bombs killed at least 65 people.

Meanwhile, Washington hardly has any influence over what happens in Baghdad anymore. And although Iran's Shiite leadership supports Maliki, it has only limited control over events.

A More Peaceful Breaking Point

Kirkuk is a multiethnic city thousands of years old and claimed by Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen alike. American occupiers already viewed it as the predetermined breaking point of the new Iraq. They predicted that the various groups in the "Mesopotamian Jerusalem" would begin attacking each other after US troops had withdrawn.

The first oil in Iraq was discovered in Kirkuk in 1927. Since the 1930s, gas flares have been burning day and night on the city's outskirts, serving as a reminder of the riches that whoever controls the region has access to. An American colonel once said that this city could plunge the entire country into ruin.

It's looking that way at the moment, but not, as was once predicted, because of the city's residents. In Kirkuk, where the local television station broadcasts in four languages, Muslims and Christians, Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen coexist more peacefully than they did years ago.

Although the parties are still at odds over voter registration problems, residents are increasingly indifferent to the issue. "We just want to live normally," says Murah Salah, a Turkmen mechanic. "We want to have jobs, electricity, security, a functioning garbage-collection service and," he adds with a smile, "to be able to drive out to barbecues on the weekend!"

He is referring to the sort of outing that's taking place on a large meadow outside the city today. Mohammed Hilmi and his family are picnicking directly next to the Salah family. Yes, things have improved, he says. "In the past, people sat on their blankets, far apart from each other, and no one spoke with anyone else. Those days are now gone."

Delwar Abdul Aziz, a Kurdish pharmacist, says: "After Saddam, we just needed time to become normal again. There was deep-seated fear and mistrust. Now people trust each other again. The attacks are certainly a problem, but the terrorists are definitely not from here."

Defusing Kirkuk 's Conflict

Neither Kurds nor Arabs nor Turkmen alone control Kirkuk and its population of 900,000. But that circumstance has probably kept things relatively stable in the city, which has put coexistence to the test for centuries, and which, in addition to the three main ethnic groups, is home to religious groups like the Yazidis, Kakai and Assyrian Christians. Jews are the only religious group to have left Kirkuk, in the 1950s.

When competing groups are forced to hammer out compromises, the result is checks and balances. Perhaps another reason for the city's stability is that the Kirkukis got rid of their corrupt governor two years ago and elected a new one, whose nickname is the "Bulldozer."

Najmuddin Karim, a Kurdish neurosurgeon who lived in the United States for 35 years, has fired corrupt officials, built roads, bridges and a new market, and created a few thousand temporary administrative jobs. Now that Karim is in office, electricity is available for 20 instead of four hours a day, and there are even streetlights, in Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen neighborhoods alike.

Although Karim hasn't managed to end the conflict over Kirkuk, he has defused it. "We must treat everyone as a citizen, something we failed to do in the past," says Karim, who is in his mid-60s. "Of course I would like to see Kirkuk become part of the Kurdish region. But it won't work if the Sunnis and Turkmen don't agree!"

Even the leaders of former dictator Saddam's Sunnis, the losers of 2003, seem to have made their peace with the Kurds. This is especially ironic in Kirkuk, where Saddam expelled tens of thousands of Kurds after a failed uprising in the 1990s and brought in Sunnis from the south to settle there.

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