On the Edge of Chaos in Kirkuk

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American soldiers with the 173rd Airborne Division guard the oil fields outside Kirkuk

Days after Kirkuk was freed, much of the city was missing: furniture and air conditioners from government buildings, beds from the hospitals, even the daffodils in front of the Ministry of Northern Iraq. Nearby, the Pepsi bottling plant was in flames. But one thing was perfectly intact: the machinery around the city's oil fields, which produce about a third of Iraq's oil exports. American soldiers, who were almost absent from the city where so much looting was going on, were out in force around the adjacent oil fields, which account for a third of Iraq's oil exports, a fact not lost on the locals.

"This war was clearly for these oilfields," concluded Hasan Muhamed, a Kurd who tried to visit the area around the oil fields to see a sick friend, only to be turned away by members of the 173rd Airborne. They had blocked all roads into the area with razor wire. "Saddam Hussein never gave us a penny for this oil, and now it looks like the Americans are going to take it." Leaning against his beat-up white Chevrolet in the blazing sun, he said he was confused about the outcome of the war so far. "We thank the Americans a lot for liberating the Iraqis. And those who were against the war, I ask God to forgive them. But I don't know. When the war started we thought that soon everything would be better. Now it's not clear. I see this and I don't know what to think."

Hussein expelled hundreds of thousands of Kurds, Turks and Christians from Kirkuk, in order to claim the oil for Arabs. And Turks claim that Kurds are only interested in Kirkuk because its oil revenues could help create a future independent Kurdistan. Now locals are starting to wonder if the Americans only want the oil for themselves.

"We have always had problems because outsiders have had their eyes on our oil," said Andre Sana, Archbishop of Kirkuk for the Chaldean Catholic Church and one of the local leaders tapped by the Americans to form a transitional authority. "If the oil is used for the people, it will be a blessing. But if the leaders use it for their individual interests, it will be a curse."

Inside the city, near the military airport the Americans now use as a base, teenage boys gave high-fives to the American soldiers as they went in and out. When a car loaded with looted goods — a taxi with thirty foam mattresses piled high on the roof, for example — drove past, the boys hooted and pointed. The soldiers didn't do anything. The Americans, who numbered at most a couple of thousand, admitted they could do nothing. "It's a big city," said one American soldier. "We can't control it all. We did stop there from being any ethnic violence."

But it remains to be seen how long that success will last. Kirkuk is far from the only city in Iraq to have a looting problem. But its multiethnic character lends a much greater possibility of greater violence. The Americans delegated responsibility for the city to the Kurdish forces that stormed the city Thursday morning, chasing out the meager Iraqi forces without a fight. But within hours Kurds from the far northern cities of Erbil and Suleymaniya were streaming into the city with empty pickup trucks. In some places the Peshmerga Kurdish forces were vainly trying to stop the looting, while they actively participated in others. Arab and Turkish residents claimed they were being targeted. One Turk who whose car was stolen at gunpoint begged the Americans to help him get it back. "We don't trust the Kurds," he said.

Under pressure from Turkey, the main Kurdish parties agreed to withdraw their Peshmerga, but in their place came policemen from Erbil and Suleymaniya — again Kurds.

"This city is under Kurdish occupation," fumed Mustafa Kamal Yaycili, Kirkuk representative for the Iraqi Turkman Front, the main Turkish political party. His new office was dark, since workers at the power plant walked off the job for fear of the looters, cutting power in the entire city. Yaycili claimed the Kurds were stealing land and personal ID records. "They are changing the demographics of the city. If it keeps going like this there will be violence between us and the Kurds. The Turkish military needs to come here to stop the massacre. The Americans are only protecting the oil fields, not the people in the town."

The recent chaos is eroding the interethnic goodwill engendered by decades of sharing hardships under Saddam Hussein. Amid the scent of blooming lilacs and the smoke from burning oil, a united group of Arabs, Turks and Kurds pulled down the central statue of Hussein on Thursday. "We can coexist, we all had the same dream: to destroy the Saddam Hussein regime and get democracy. We don't want civil war," said one shopowner, Zuhair Muhammed. But just a few hours later, the streets were controlled by Kurds. Crowds of teenage boys rode in the back of pickups shooting their Kalashnikovs in the air. Peshmerga commandeered Iraqi tanks for joyrides. Someone pasted a photocopied image of the face of Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani over the face on one mural of Saddam Hussein.

Arabs and Turks kept to their neighborhoods. "This is not Iraqi Freedom," said Najad Abdul Karim, one Arab resident. "At least under Saddam Hussein we had police officers we could complain to. Now if you challenge someone stealing they'll shoot you. America is the greatest power in the world. And they can't stop this?"