Thu, Oct 02, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Saddam is gone, but ethnic divisions remain

The former Iraqi president fanned the flames of ethnic hatred in Kirkuk. Now American officials are trying to douse such longstanding enmity



The vast pools of oil burbling below this northern city made it a crucial asset for former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, who worked harder here than perhaps anywhere else to foster mutual hatred amid the city's jumble of ethnic groups.

No measure was too large, or too small, to ensure that his control over the spigots went unchallenged.

He expelled tens of thousands of Kurds and replaced them with more loyal Arabs imported from elsewhere. A secret police force was recruited within each group to spy on rival communities. His government even commissioned a pair of rather crudely executed bronze statues of two men killed by the Kurds during political clashes in 1959 -- artwork calculated to fan the embers of distrust and loathing.

Saddam is gone, but the effect survives. In late August, a sudden burst of ethnic bloodletting in Kirkuk and a neighboring town left 13 people dead. The US occupation administration quelled the violence through a combination of military muscle and forced negotiations.

But the lingering question remains whether the multiethnic city government being glued together under American tutelage can channel sectarian hatred away from bloodshed. If it succeeds in Kirkuk, many believe, then the effort to create an Iraq unscathed by similar fault lines may succeed, too.

"In Kirkuk, the Iraqi mosaic is very clear, so if you don't have problems here, you won't have them in the rest of Iraq," said Sargon Lazar Slewa, the town's deputy mayor and an Assyrian Christian. "If it's the opposite, it means there is no solution, and we might as well all get new passports and leave."

The US administration acknowledges that each group, in its own way, suffered under the Baath government. The quandary is addressing the problems without inflaming anew the city of 800,000.

Any Kurd or Turkman who refused to change his identity to Arab was forced to move, while many traces of Kurdish or Turkmen heritage were razed.

Permission for Arabs to sell land first had to be obtained from the presidential office in Baghdad, then was banned outright. Kirkuk's outsize statue of Saddam, since toppled, depicted him in Arab robes.

Although the definitive record is only now being compiled, the Kurds circulate staggering figures -- some 800,000 Kurds displaced across northern Iraq, more than 150,000 of them from Kirkuk alone.

If nothing else, the post-Saddam struggle for prevalence is a battle of dubious statistics. The main ethnic groups -- Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs -- all claim that they make up more than half the city. (The fourth group, mostly Assyrian Christians, constitute about 3 percent of the population, and admit it.)

No reference is too obscure.

Turkmen insist that visitors read the tombstones from the 1960s to discover how few Kurds lived in the city. The Kurds cite a Turkish encyclopedia, circa 1850 -- it would not possibly lie about Turkmen tribes -- to prove Kurds then made up 60 percent of the city.

The last census dates from 1957, and no one thinks it reflects reality. The most the American military can confirm is that no group holds an absolute majority.

Members of each community, especially the most educated, explain amicably how they learned all four languages growing up, and that intermarriage was common.

But it does not take long for Aly Shukr Bayati, a Turkmen lawyer and poet, to start quoting ancient texts that described snakes descending from the desert range north of the city to attack the hapless residents of the plains.

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