By Howard LaFranchi | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
KIRKUK, IRAQ - When a truck bomb blew off the front of the Quoria district police station here and killed seven people in January, fear raced through this ethnically and religiously mixed northern city that it, too, would face the sectarian strife tearing apart Baghdad.
But on a recent afternoon, Police Chief Abdullah Taja Salahudin showed US soldiers the progress in rebuilding the station, presenting it as a sign of Kirkuk's determination to
"Kirkuk is in better condition than most cities in Iraq, and that is because for so long we have all these religions and populations in this one place," he says. "People have known for a long time how to live together, and now they refuse to give in to any trouble."
It's this resistance to provocation that has kept Kirkuk from descending into the kind of vengeful violence that has flared elsewhere, Kirkuki and US military officials say.
A Muslim Turkoman, Chief Taja has demonstrated this resolve while promoting the security of this city of Kurds, Turkomans, Chaldean and Assyrian Christians, and Sunni and Shiite Arabs. Aside from that January truck bomb, he has survived four improvised explosive device (IED) attacks. And in June 2006, a car bomb destroyed his house.
As encouraging as that determination has been, all agree that Kirkuk remains one of the biggest tests of Iraq's future. A major hurdle will be the resolution on its status - either as an Iraqi province linked with Baghdad or joined to the adjacent autonomous Kurdish Regional Government.
Iraq's Constitution calls for this issue to be resolved by a referendum among Kirkuk's population by the end of 2007. Most observers agree that sticking to the constitutional calendar is problematic at least - a census is supposed to be taken first and boundaries redrawn - and disastrous at worst. A referendum, which the Kurds would expect to win, could open the door to deeper strife and even the breakup of Iraq.
Underlying all this is Kirkuk's vast oil wealth and the struggle for its control. Who controls the oil, people here say, will determine who controls Kirkuk.
And as if that were not enough, the crucial national reconciliation issues being debated in Baghdad - from a law that is to set oil revenue-sharing among Iraq's sectarian and ethnic communities to revision of deBaathification law that could allow thousands of ex-Baathists to return to their jobs - will play a key role in setting Kirkuk's course.
The end result of those issues may be out of local hands, but in the meantime US officials here and some local security and political authorities are working to encourage intercommunity cooperation - and to see that the general refusal to take the bait of extremist provocations continues.
And the bait is continuous. Over the weekend in Kirkuk, car bombs killed a US soldier on Saturday and two Kurdish security agents on Sunday morning.
"We spend a lot of time trying to gauge ... what it would take to set off the kind of sectarian violence we haven't seen yet - and then working to avoid it," says Col. Patrick Stackpole, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team in Kirkuk. If not pursued carefully, the process of settling Kirkuk's status "surely has the potential to be a spark around here."
History plays a major role in the tensions that roil the city. For most Kurds, establishing Kirkuk's status as a part of the Kurdish north is the only way to redress the wrongs of Saddam Hussein. Under that regime, nearly 1,000 Kurdish villages were razed and a program of "Arabization" - wholesale import of Arab families - was implemented to destroy the Kurdish influence. Now as part of the constitutional process, Kurds who were forced out are being allowed to return, while Arabs who arrived under "Arabization" are offered land elsewhere and compensation for homes they choose to leave.
All of this has led some communities to openly question whether redressing old sins is resulting in a repeat of the past. "There is a fear that what the previous regime did to so many may be about to happen again to others," says Tahsin al-Kahia, a Turkoman member of the Kirkuk Provincial Council.
For some, another facet of Kirkuk's history holds the solution to its tranquility. "These communities have a long tradition of living and working together that goes back way before Saddam Hussein, and that's the history and tradition they need to call on now," says Howard Keegan, chief of the State Department's Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Kirkuk.
He says that he believes the negative examples elsewhere in Iraq is also having an impact here. "We don't have the Shia-Sunni divide here," Mr. Keegan adds, "but we do have TV, so people see the images of communities tearing each other apart."
US military and civilian officials say they can't alter a constitutional process, but they say they can encourage steps to ease the transition to whatever future Kirkuk chooses. One of those steps is simple education. "Some decision on Kirkuk's status is inevitable, but the key to easing tensions about it is education on the process," says Lt. Col. Michael Browder. "There's a lot of fear of being pushed out, of denied rights and services, but if people know that participation in the compensation aspects is voluntary, for example, that usually calms them down."
One problem is that many political leaders from the different communities continue to spout uncompromising rhetoric about Kirkuk's status.
"These issues from the Constitution are like a minefield, they are going to explode if pursued," says Mohammed Khalil al-Jabouri, a Sunni Arab member of the provincial council. "Already the power positions of this government are in Kurdish hands, they are not multiethnic, so we see what a referendum would bring."
The view is the polar opposite in the expansive office of Provincial Council Chairman Rizgar Ali. "We only have one solution, and that is Article 140," the section of the Constitution dealing with Kirkuk, he says. "What is the problem if Kirkuk becomes part of Kurdistan - do they forget Kurdistan is part of Iraq?"
Mr. Kahia, the Turkoman council member, says there are plenty of "problems" with that eventuality, including the impact it would have beyond Iraq's borders. "Neither Turkey nor Iran would accept Kirkuk being united with the KRG [Kurdish Regional Government], and both could cause huge problems we can't even imagine now."
The solution, he says, is to put off the referendum and focus on completing the other measures, such as resettlement and a census. "We have to take time," Kahia says, "we have to lay the foundation of democracy first."