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Kirkuk: Ignore It While You Can

It's not the West Bank
There's a lot going on in the world right now. It's hard keeping up with the headlines. You can tell that even the White House is having trouble staying on top of the news.

We here at the Outpost can state one thing with relative certainty, though: If there's one place that isn't taking up much space on President Barack Obama's agenda right now, it's Iraq. This is the year that U.S. forces are scheduled to leave the country, and it looks as though most American voters (and politicians) will be only too happy to see them go.

We sometimes forget, though, that reality is often messier than the headlines admit. And that's what came to mind yesterday -- when a well-timed report pointed out that Americans aren't going to be able to forget about Iraq just because they want to.

The report, published by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a leading non-profit that does some of the best work on Iraq, takes a deep look at the powder keg known as Kirkuk, the city in northern Iraq that serves as the capital of a province of the same name.

Everybody wants a piece of Kirkuk. The fact that the governorate straddles one of Iraq's biggest oil fields might have something to do with it. But that's not all. Kurds have been known to refer to the city as the "Kurdish Jerusalem," the place they would love to have as the capital of a future Kurdish state. Saddam Hussein, not known as a big fan of the Kurdish national idea, tried to settle Arabs there to boost their share of the population -- and did everything he could to encourage spasms of bloody ethnic cleansing. The Turkomans, who feel a certain degree of cultural sympathy with the people in neighboring Turkey, have claims of their own.

Enter the Americans. After the 2003 invasion all the lingering hatreds left behind by Saddam's regime threatened to explode into the open, but the U.S. Army managed to keep a lid on tensions for the next few years. Though the effort rarely made news, the American soldiers got plenty of help from the United Nations, which managed to mediate a series of deals that pushed any final decision on the status of the place into the future -- thus defusing potential conflicts, if only for a while.

But, as the ICG report points out, time is now running out. The long-postponed formation of the Iraqi government, while welcome in itself, has removed one of the last excuses for inaction. In February mostly Arab demonstrators took to the streets; government buildings were torched and three police officers died. The picture at the top of this story, taken on March 28, shows an intifada-like confrontation between rock-throwing Turkoman students and their Kurdish counterparts, whom the Turkomans accuse of minimizing their own suffering under Saddam.

Most ominously of all, confrontations between the Iraqi Army and the peshmerga, the Kurdish militias, are on the rise. All the parties know that the U.S. Army will soon be gone, so they are positioning themselves for what might follow. For the moment American troops continue to conduct joint patrols with both sides along a line running through the heart of the territory. But what happens when they leave?

So, the ICG concludes, a deal needs to be struck -- the sooner, the better. There are some hopeful signs. There have been deals about the sharing of oil resources, and recently the Kurds even made a point of supporting the appointment of a Turkoman as chairman of the provincial council. But no one should have any illusions. RFE/RL's Abdelilah Nuaimi has been following the issue for years, and he notes that all the talk about power-sharing tends to dodge the central issue. "Kurds want Kirkuk as the capital of a future Kurdish state," he says. "And Arabs insist that this is out of the question." It's hard to imagine how both demands can be satisfied without opening up a crack through the fragile Iraqi state.

It's also hard to imagine how anyone could possibly persuade President Obama to keep U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq past the scheduled withdrawal deadline at the end of this year. Then again, he might not have had much opportunity to consider the alternative. In Kirkuk, at least, it's not very pretty.

-- Christian Caryl