War Within A War A Real Possibility
Friday 11 April 2003
Human waves of Kurdish militia fighters and refugees have defied Turkish warnings of military action by pouring into Iraq's most coveted oil-rich city.
They streamed into Kirkuk by the tens of thousands yesterday, staking their claim to a city they consider their historical capital and eliciting veiled threats from neighbouring Turkey.
They came on the heels of a collapsing Iraqi army, racing to this northern Iraqi city in beat-up old cabs, stuffed inside buses or jammed in the back of trucks.
They smashed portraits and statues of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and went searching for the homes they were forced out of years ago.
The Kurdish militias came armed, thereby breaking a commitment the U.S. apparently made to Turkey. And Turkey, which also makes historical claims to Kirkuk, was furious.
Initially, Kurdish militia fighters, known as peshmergas, entered Kirkuk fighting alongside U.S. Special Forces soldiers. But as soon as the sporadic resistance was quashed, thousands more militia fighters poured in.
Until yesterday, officials with the two main Kurdish militias the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) had insisted they would not move on Kirkuk without U.S. approval.
But it seems they pulled a fast one yesterday.
"The Americans did not give an order," said Omar Fattah, one of 11 members on PUK's political bureau.
No order was needed, he said, because once Kirkuk was liberated, then, by definition, everyone was free to go to the city.
Said PUK commander, Jalal Khoshnaw: "This is our homeland. We don't need permission from anyone to come here."
Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told reporters that Turkey was ready to do "whatever is necessary" to safeguard its interests in the region.
Turkey already has forces amassed at its border with northern Iraq, and it has repeatedly warned that it would invade if Kirkuk fell into the hands of Kurdish militias.
Now suddenly, the scenario the United States has tried desperately to avoid a war within a war seemed a possibility.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell telephoned Gul yesterday to try to defuse the crisis.
Powell "gave his word new U.S. forces will be sent to Kirkuk in a few hours to remove the peshmerga who have gone there," Gul told reporters.
In Washington, Whitehouse spokesman Ari Fleischer declined to confirm Gul's assertion. "We've been in contact with officials in Turkey as well as free Iraqis in the north, and I think it's fair to say that American forces will be in control of Kirkuk," Fleischer said.
But by late last night, thousands of Kurdish militias patrolled the streets, while only about three dozen U.S. soldiers could be spotted.
American soldiers, Kurdish officials say, are in control of the Kirkuk oilfields, the country's most productive. The Pentagon, however, has not confirmed this. Kurdish officials also said the U.S. military had over-all authority in the city.
Still, Kurdish militias control the streets of Kirkuk, a city of 1 million people, and have positioned themselves as key players in the city's post-war future.
Kurds have openly demanded political control of Kirkuk made up of Kurds, Arabs and Turkomans a claim that also doesn't sit well with Turkey and is likely to keep the city a source of instability in Iraq after the war.
Turkey fears that an autonomous Kurdish entity in northern Iraq with Kirkuk as its economic engine will evolve into an independent state, thereby encouraging separatist sentiment among its own oppressed Kurdish minority.
But Turkey may be the author of its own misfortune as far as Kirkuk is concerned.
The United States had wanted to open a northern front into Iraq with 62,000 U.S. troops launched from bases in Turkey. Turkey rejected the proposal.
That left the United States with a small group of U.S. Special Forces in northern Iraq, forced to rely on Kurdish militias to launch ground assaults and to hold towns and territory captured.
The Kirkuk oil fields, and the adjacent city of the same name, lie about 30 kilometres south of the autonomous, Kurdish-controlled area of northern Iraq, which has largely been kept out of the Iraqi army's reach since 1991 by patrolling U.S. and British warplanes.
Over the past 30 years, Saddam's security forces have expelled more than 100,000 Kurds from the oil-rich area. It was part of the Iraqi president's policy of reinforcing his grip on Kirkuk by tipping the demographic balance in the disputed area in favour of Arabs.
Allowing for the return of Kirkuk's refugees will be one of the more sensitive issues to come. Many will be going back to homes that have been inhabited by other families for years.
When he arrived in Kirkuk, Khoshnaw, the PUK commander, went straight to the home he and his family were chased out of 12 years ago.
"There is an Arab family living there now," said Khoshnaw, 35. "They were very frightened when they saw me. I calmed them down. I said, `You can stay until you find another house.'"
Others may not be so understanding.
Once word spread that Kirkuk had fallen, Kurdish refugees from Kurdish-controlled Chamchamal, a town 45 kilometres north, began speeding toward the homes they hadn't seen for years.
The road to Kirkuk was full of cheering Kurds hanging out of pickup trucks and other vehicles, driving in a frenzy.
Twice, the dangerous race to the city came to a grinding halt in front of three-metre high dirt walls packed across the road by the retreating Iraqi army.
In the chorus of revving motors, vehicles suddenly bolted up the side of hills around the obstacle, oblivious to the risks of landmines. Whenever a car got stuck, dozens of men would lift it up and push it on its way.
It was bedlam.
Large pools of crude oil sat in trenches at the entrance to the city, which the Iraqi army had intended to set alight as part of Kirkuk's defences.
Once in the city, many got down to the business of symbolically toppling Saddam's regime once and for all. Several hundred people gathered at the town's main central square to watch a giant statue of Saddam wearing Bedouin robes being beaten with stones and shoes.
They swung a rope around its outstretched arm. When they couldn't rip the statue off its pedestal by collective human strength, the rope was hitched to a flatbed truck.
The statue came down with a crash, and a cheer. And like a replay of the scene in Baghdad the day before, people immediately began stomping and spitting on the statue's head.
Suddenly, across the square, a giant portrait of Saddam in a cement frame was engulfed in flames. And just as the flames died down, more gasoline was thrown on the portrait until the fire blackened every inch of Saddam's likeness.
"The devil is dead," shouted Hassan Kareem, 40. "We were living at the bottom of hell, but now paradise is coming."
Meanwhile, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported that U.S. and Kurdish forces entered the city of Mosul, just hours after they moved into Kirkuk.
"This began a few hours ago, I don't think the city has fallen yet," said an official with the Kurdistan Democratic Party.
In the last two days of Saddam's rule in Kirkuk, residents and PUK officials said 16 opposition activists were rounded up and executed. The local jail was filled with 150 prisoners, most of them political dissidents. The Iraqi army put them on a bus and took them south of the city before U.S. Special Forces arrived, Kurdish officials say.
"Words cannot express how I feel, or what we have been through," Hassan Abdullah said.
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