Kurds celebrated a major political victory on Wednesday after a Kurd was elected to head the local interim government in this oil-rich northern city, which for years had been dominated by Arabs from the Baath Party of Saddam Hussein.
The vote for mayor followed city council elections that gave Kurds the largest block of votes on the 30-seat council. US forces organized the elections, which officials said were a first step toward establishing democracy in the nation. It is the fifth such election in Iraq, after the northern city of Mosul and three cities in Iraq's south.
The new mayor, Abdulrahman Mustafa, was elected on Wednesday by the city council.
Meanwhile, the US civilian administrator for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, paid a two-hour visit to the northern cities of Erbil and Sulaimaniyah. The operations officer at the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs, Major Steven Johnson, said Bremer's brief, low-profile visit was "decided at the last minute" to "link up with the regional coordinator."
Earlier this month, Bremer called off a visit here, a move that officials said privately at the time was linked to US uncertainty about the Kurdish issue.
Elections in Kirkuk are significant for two reasons. First, the city is the center of Iraq's vast northern oil resources. Fields here produce about 40 percent of Iraq's crude oil. The oil is the property of the central government, but local officials will wield influence over it. Second, Kirkuk has been a focal point of ethnic tension between Arabs and Kurds. Fights in the city two weeks ago left 12 people dead. In the voting on Wednesday, one assistant mayor had his arm in a cast after he was shot in a neighborhood where arguments had boiled over into gunfights two weeks ago. The ethnic makeup of the new local administration will be critical in determining how such disputes are settled.
Kurds were in a celebratory mood on Wednesday. Outside the government building where the voting took place, Kurdish police officers and guards danced traditional Kurdish steps to the beat of a large drum and the high, nasal hum of a folk horn. Passing cars honked.
"I cannot describe how I am glad," said Kemal Kerkuki, a council member and leader in Kirkuk of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. "After so many years of dictatorship, we have chosen our own leader."
Arab delegates were subdued, however, even though an Arab, Ismail Ahmed Rajab, was elected deputy mayor.
"We don't have a choice, we must be happy," said Akar Nezal Altawil, one of the six Arab council members. "Kirkuk is not controlled by Kurds but by Kirkuk residents."
Since the war, Kurds have made large strides in Kirkuk, a city they call their spiritual center but which was the center of Saddam's campaign to replace Kurdish residents with Arabs and give Baghdad more control over the region's oil fields. The central police department, in the Ahmed Agha quarter, is staffed almost exclusively by Kurds. Other Kurdish cities have sent doctors, police forces and even teachers.
"Now the head of the government is a Kurd -- that's very good," said Abdulla Rasheed, the main police chief on duty Wednesday.
"If an Arab had won, we would have gone back to the mountains," he added, referring to the traditional northern homeland of the Kurds.
There is some concern that Wednesday's Kurdish victory will cause Arabs who feel slighted to strike back, or be subjected to harassment by Kurdish locals. But Arab neighborhoods were quiet. Doctors at the main hospital, Saddam General Hospital, said they had not seen victims of ethnic violence for several days.