Spoils of Babylon
Joost Hiltermann, The National Interest |
16 Dec 2009
THE FATE of Iraq may well rise or fall on Kirkuk as Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and Christians grapple for control of the province and the safety of their people. Oil riches abound in this land that straddles the border of Arab and Kurdish Iraq. And command of these resources is the prize for the taking. As the powers that be in Baghdad fight to hold on to the tenuous peace wrested from civil war, deciding the political fate of Kirkuk is treacherous enough to bring down the state. So far, the battle has largely taken place in a never-ending political drama, but if compromise cannot be reached-and soon-bloody conflict may well be the next step.
I FIRST visited the Iraqi province in April 1991, driving up from Baghdad in an international humanitarian agency's car. At the time, I was working as a consultant for the Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights, assessing civilian conditions in the wake of the U.S.-led war in Kuwait and Iraq. I got far more than I bargained for. A resurgent Iraqi regime had just crushed uprisings in the south and north of the country brought on by the George H. W. Bush administration's encouragement of rebellion and promises of support. But the White House quickly backtracked, leaving the insurgents to face the wrath of Saddam Hussein on their own.
THE TELLTALE signs of recent conflict were everywhere I went in Iraq. Shops were aflame in the center of Karbala with tank-shell damage to the facade of the adjacent al-Abbas mosque. In Basra, manned antiaircraft batteries had been deployed in the middle of intersections, their guns trained at eye level. Throughout the entire country there was evidence of rocket fire on government buildings, and horrendous conditions in clinics and hospitals, with stories of corpses stacked in hallways and toddlers laid up in cribs, emaciated from lack of drinking water. Downed water-storage tanks and bombed power stations littered the landscape. In the north, overturned tractor-drawn carts of fleeing Kurds sat by the roadside, strafed by helicopter gunships. In the Sulaimaniya government hospital in northeast Kurdistan, a trickle of refugees was returning from the border with Iran, bearing terrifying land-mine injuries. And, in a hint of the vicious reprisals to come in the wake of the Kurdish rebellion against the Baghdad government, I saw a Kurdish insurgent (a pesh merga) being carried into a police station by two Iraqi soldiers, hanging upside down from a pole to which they had tied his hands and legs.
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Joost R. Hiltermann is deputy program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group.