A Riot on the Northern Front

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Kirkuk was supposed to be Iraq's Sarajevo, the place where ethnic hatreds might lead to a post-Saddam civil war. But on the day Kirkuk fell, it was hard to find any people who had a bad word to say about any of their neighbors. The central statue of Saddam Hussein was torn down by a crowd of Arabs, Kurds and Turkomans working together. "We can coexist, we all had the same dream: to destroy the Saddam Hussein regime and get democracy," said Kurdish shopowner, Zuhair Muhammed. "We don't want civil war."

The only bad guys, at least on this day, were the looters. Thousands of Kurds entered the city Thursday morning and with barely a struggle occupied the city behind the rapidly fleeing Iraqi forces. Almost immediately hundreds of pickups, buses, taxis and dump trucks full of cheering Kurds sped down the road from the Kurdish capital city of Erbil. On the other side of the road was a similar procession away from Kirkuk, and these cars were loaded high with looted goods.

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Some Kurdish peshmerga soldiers tried to stop men looting an oil refinery office. One orange and white taxi came out with a rusty refrigerator on top. An angry peshmerga demanded he put it back, but the looter had a gun. And so he went on. Other cars continued to stream out of the refinery parking lot, with leather office chairs and air conditioners tied precariously to the tops of their cars.

Some peshmerga commandeered tanks and drove them through the city, jublilantly shooting off rounds from their Kalashnikovs. One Turkoman man approached reporters in an attempt to get his car back; it had been stolen that morning. A crowd of children picked through the rubble left inside the Ministry for Northern Iraq, while a man outside took the only thing left worth anything: the garden's daffodils.

To many in Kirkuk, the looting was the only blemish on the day they've been dreaming of for years. "Why did the peshmerga let them come?" asked Qasim Khosid, a Kurd. "The leadership is guilty for letting this happen and blackening our face in front of the world. We don't know who is in charge."

Scores of political parties were jockeying for position hours after the city fell. Many had claimed new headquarters in the city, spraypainting their initials on the wall and posting gunmen at the perimeters. The main Kurdistan parties like the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, as well as minor ones like the Kurdistan Communist Party and the Kurdistan Toilers Party, opened shop.

Hundreds of thousands of Kurds, Turkmen and other minorities have been deported out of the city for the last decades, replaced by Arabs with the goal of cementing Baghdad's claim on the city — and its nearby oil fields. Pessimists suggested that it was the place where everything in this war could go wrong. Kurds could take the city — which they regard as their Jerusalem — for themselves. The Turks would fear that revenues from the oil fields would allow the Kurds to create a viable independent state, thus destabilizing its own large Kurdish minority. So Turkey would send in tens of thousands of troops to nip that possibility in the bud. And America would have a civil war in the north while it was still trying to pacify Baghdad.

Kurdish leaders claimed that the men who entered Kirkuk were irregulars who, in the exuberance of Saddam Hussein's apparent loss of power the day before, couldn't be held back from Kirkuk any longer. It's a hard claim to judge, since every Kurdish man has a gun and many soldiers don't wear uniforms. And the Americans, if they didn't approve the operation, at least seemed to tolerate it. A column of 60 Humvees from the 173rd Airborne Brigade rumbled down the highway from Erbil, but they stopped short of Kirkuk. Only a few Americans were easily seen in the city, sitting in their jeeps in a parking lot. But many residents were waiting for them to show up in force and stop the looting. "It's chaos," said Khosid. "It's the first day and we don't know what will happen. We just want stability."