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.
Maliki's Increasing Power
A group of Sunnis are gathering for a Friday demonstration in front of a grandstand on the city's outskirts. "Like in Cairo," they say. But the 1,100 protesters are not there to address power-related issues in Kirkuk. "We want justice! Fight the repression. Fight Maliki's dictatorship!" the men chant. There is something odd about former supporters of Saddam Hussein taking to the streets to demand fundamental democratic rights.
"Sunnis are no longer allowed to become officers, and former Sunni members of the Baath Party are not allowed to return to their posts. Maliki is placing Shiites in all the positions," complains Bunyan Sabar al-Ubaidi, one of the organizers of the demonstration. "This is no democracy." The relationship with the Kurds was difficult in the past, he says, and the Sunnis were very concerned about being driven out by Kurds returning to Kirkuk. "But that's been resolved," he says. "Today we are all afraid of Maliki's dictatorship."
Maliki, a Shiite compromise candidate who became prime minister in 2006, cares less and less about democracy in Iraq. Initially underestimated as a bland apparatchik, he proved to be a savvy tactician. While still under the aegis of the United States, he took over the network of secret prisons and torture centers the Americans had set up. He developed and expanded Shiite special units, such as the Wolf and Tiger Brigades, as well as other militias, the most notorious of which is colloquially known as the "Fedayeen Maliki," a name derived from the deposed dictator's "Fedayeen Saddam."
Maliki eliminated the balance within the military leadership installed by Washington by simply creating new military units under his command, even including a second air force consisting of helicopter squadrons. Since the last election, in 2010, Maliki has assumed the positions of interior and defense minister, in addition to being prime minister.
He recently created the Tigris Forces, under the command of a Shiite general from the Saddam era who looks like a doppelgänger of the dead dictator, with the same drooping moustache, the same fleshy cheeks and the same facial expression. Wherever the Tigris Forces appear, as in the eastern Diyala Province, the police and political parties are required to submit to its command.
Injecting Renewed Ethnic Strife
But the terror the Tigris Forces were created to combat has not abated in Diyala. On the contrary, "there are now more attacks in Diyala, and the same is starting to happen here," says Kirkuk Province Police Chief Sarhad Kadir, as he lists the catastrophic attacks of the last few months: at least 21 dead in an attack on Jan. 16, and more than 30 dead on Feb. 3.
He was one of the targets in both attacks, and he was injured in the second one. "We haven't had any suicide bombings here in three years, and now they're happening again," he say. "We cooperated with the army's intelligence service in the past. We exchanged information, and there were joint operations. That's over now. They don't seem to care about the terrorists."
Kadir shrugs his shoulders and says that the terrorists are a strange mixture of various groups. "They collect protection money and organize kidnappings and, last week, al-Quida and Ansar al-Sunna were shooting at each other in the southwestern part of the province. They had a dispute over a payment of random money." The suicide bombers the terrorists use are often children, he says. "Otherwise, they pay people to place bombs."
Kadir's police force consists of a relatively balanced group of Kurds, Turkmens and Arabs. While he talks about the lunacy of the attacks, his assistant comes in with a trembling young Arab policeman in tow, who wants to speak with the general himself. He says that he can't stand it any more and want to leave the force. "They'll kill me if I return to my village in uniform," he says. For weeks, he adds, he has been receiving death threats by phone. "But this morning, they were lying in wait for me, and they said that they would cut off my head, put it between my legs and then set me on fire."
Kadir nods, as if the young man had just told him something innocuous. Then he makes a few phone calls. He tells someone in the crime-research unit to track down the telephone number from which the threatening calls were made. He tells the young police officer's supervisor to appoint five trustworthy men to investigate the case. "A quiet day," says the general, despite it all.
Defiance Despite Bombs
But that changes by the next afternoon. In a neighborhood called "90," named after the year Saddam had Sunnis settle there, a parked car explodes just as a police pickup truck is driving by. Two Arab policemen are killed instantly, and the Turkmen machine-gunner on the roof and two neighbors are seriously injured. A police officer uses his foot to push the remains of a flak jacket over a pool of blood from the man who had just worn the jacket. "May his soul rest in peace," he says.
Only two days later, a patrol notices two men loading explosives into a taxi while driving by. The men open fire before the officers can get out their car. The policemen return fire, hitting one of the men. A bomb explodes, and the officers become nervous. "How much explosive material do they still have in the car if they are crazy enough to shoot at us?" one of them asks.
The men surround the taxi. A bomb-disposal expert wearing a protective suit slowly walks over to the car and attaches a small explosive charge to the trunk with adhesive tape to detonate anything that might still be in the taxi. There is a loud explosion, leaving a gaping hole where the trunk used to be. The hood of the trunk sails into a garden with a crash, but apparently there were no other explosives in the car.
When the dust settles, the chief nods and the officers advance. The body of the dead driver is sprawled across the seats. The men pull him into the street by his arms and legs and leave the body there until an ambulance comes to pick it up. When the paramedics lift it onto a stretcher, a police officer snorts: "You should burn him! Just burn him!"
Bomb attacks have shaken the city for almost 10 years. The targets are police stations and party offices, as well as schools, shops and intersections. The terror isn't stopping, and yet it is not driving the ethnic groups against each other and creating a pogrom-like mood. Instead, it is triggering a collective mood of defiance.
Dabi, a Christian alcohol vendor who wants neither his last name nor his photo published, is sitting in front of a wall of bottles. He says that his shop has been attacked four times in recent years. "The last explosion destroyed an entire Johnny Walker shipment. Maybe I should emigrate, but all my friends are here: Sargon, Delwar, Ali, George." He rattles off a list of names of people of all religions and ethnic groups. "And they all drink! Kirkuk is my city, and I don't want to leave!"
Corruption and Lawlessness
Notwithstanding the horrific attacks, the city's development is gathering steam. Hotels and apartment buildings are under construction, and a new power plant is in the works. Although the provincial administration is the biggest employer and contracting entity, at least it works under Governor Karim, whom no one accuses of corruption -- an exception among Iraqi politicians.
Almost all construction projects in Kirkuk are funded by the "petrodollar," or the $1 (€0.78) per barrel of oil produced that the provincial administration receives under an agreement the oil-producing provinces negotiated with the central government. In 2012, this amounted to $351 million for Kirkuk. Although Basra, a city in oil-rich southern Iraq, receives about twice as much, the city still looks as miserable as ever, with the exception of a few showcase buildings. Electricity is only provided for hours at a time.
In January, when it rained for days in Baghdad, the streets became flooded -- especially in places where new sewage pipes had supposedly been installed in recent years, at a cost of $7 billion. But apparently the pipes were in fact never installed. Instead, ministers, civil servants and governors have been raiding the public coffers with impunity.
Iraq ranks 169th out of 174 countries on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index. Five years ago, a US Embassy employee testified in a hearing before the US Congress in Washington that Maliki had issued secret orders to an anti-corruption commission, telling it that investigations concerning him or senior government officials should not be passed on to the courts.
Corruption has now reached epidemic proportions, says a Baghdad developer, who explains that a "fee" of five to 10 percent of the total value of a project must be paid whenever a contract is assigned. Even requests for bids for large government contracts often consist of only a page and a half of vague information, says the developer. There are "no specifications and many mistakes," he adds, and the search for every conceivable defect only begins at the time of inspection. "If a yellow excavator is delivered, they claim it should have been orange. They always find something." Without the inspection, there is no payout, and without a bribe there can be no inspection.
But Maliki didn't invent corruption, the developer says. He points out that the ministries controlled by the Sadr Party are just as greedy. And when it comes to the Kurdish regional government in the north, he adds, there are no business deals that don't involve the ruling families.
Maliki permits corruption, the developer says, and uses it for his purposes. He forces those who are not agreeable to him out of office with terrorism and corruption indictments, including the chairman of the election commission, who was believed to be full of integrity, as well as the head of the central bank. On the other hand, those who enjoy Maliki's protection, like the former trade minister, may have embezzled millions of dollars but remain untouched. In the case of the former trade minister, only the investigating judge was dismissed from his position.
"A culture of lawlessness is rampant in Iraq," says Farid Jassim Hamud, dean of the College of Law at the University of Kirkuk. "No one trusts a party anymore, and the majority of people no longer vote. I don't, either. What for? Our wealth, the oil, is a curse. It cripples us and creates greedy politicians who no longer need the people to become rich. In fact, the people only get in their way."
Horror in a Time of Celebration
A Sunday in mid-March is traditional costume day at the University of Kirkuk. Although it's only a Kurdish holiday, the dean of humanities has encouraged all students to show up in their traditional clothing. Kurdish women in outfits made of brightly colored, shiny materials appear on the campus alongside men in baggy Turkish trousers with patterned waistbands and white cloth shoes.
Turkmen women balance caps and scarves on their heads, looking like women at an Ottoman court. In the case of the fully veiled female students in the seminar on Sharia, or Islamic law, no one knows whether they understood the dean's message.
Hundreds of students parade among the flowerbeds, flirting on park benches and posing for pictures. Although only a handful of students had the courage to come as Sunni Arabs -- wearing black, diaphanous robes with gold edging, headscarves and black drawstrings -- they are asked to pose for one group photo after the next. "Not without our sheik," says a Turkmen man with a chuckle.
It could have been a quiet day. But shortly before the party, complete with a DJ, begins at the university, Bunyan Sabar al-Ubaidi, the organizer of the Arab Friday protests, is shot in his car in downtown Kirkuk. At the Friday protest held a few days earlier, Ubaidi had spoken of a new climate of solidarity. Authorities later said that the killers had escaped unrecognized.