The Battle for Kirkuk

Chamchamal, northern Iraq. Hikmat Tawfiq opens a black plastic bag and spreads the yellowed, brittle slips of paper around the floor of his concrete hovel in the Takya Refugee Camp for displaced residents of Kirkuk. "See this, we are Kirkuk's original people going back 300 years," says Tawfiq, holding up his Ottoman-era identification documents. "But still the Iraqi regime pushed us out."


Hikmat Tawfiq, a Kirkukian who now serves as director-in-residence for the Takya Camp for Displaced Persons in Iraqi Kurdistan, displays his Ottoman-era identification documents.

Anti-war demonstrators worldwide have condemned President Bush's plans for regime change in Iraq, but you won't see any such protests in Iraqi Kurdistan. In this northern enclave that gained autonomy from Baghdad in 1991 under the American and British no-flight zone, the Kurds are eagerly waiting for war. Its 3.5 million residents hope their fragile democratic experiment will be legitimized under international law after Saddam is gone.

The 100,000-plus Kirkukians displaced across the internal border by Saddam Hussein's Arabization campaign to control Kirkuk's oil fields have even more at stake. They hope that American soldiers will lead them home.

"I want this war to happen," says Tawfiq's wife Sungal. "We will sacrifice ourselves ... because we want to be free."

Most of the Kirkuk refugees are armed with only these slips of paper, but Saddam has much more at his disposal to stave off an allied invasion and Kurdish, Assyrian and Turcoman repatriation of the city. Drivers returning from daily trips to Kirkuk through the Chamchamal border checkpoint describe a city transformed into a virtual military garrison.

Particularly worrisome to the allied war planners was an explosion that rocked a Kirkuk oil field two weeks ago. Tawfiq says he can still see the smoke on a clear day from the refugee camp some 20 miles from Kirkuk. This week U.S. officials announced that Hussein was lacing Kirkuk's oil fields with explosives.

Iraqi officials countered that was "nonsense," but no one in Iraqi Kurdistan or the U.S. seems to believe them. In 1991, a harried Hussein set fire to some 700 Kuwaiti oil fields, but this time he could go a step further by setting underground infernos in the oil deposits. "Those fires would rage for years before we could control them," said one U.S. intelligence official in the region.


Serwar Hussamdin, a PUK Kurdish border guard and displaced Kirkukian, stands at the Iraqi frontlines.

The explosion was just one sign that Saddam Hussein will not give up Kirkuk and its black gold easily. First-hand accounts from drivers returning from daily trips across the lines to courier vegetables and heating oil say advanced military preparations are under way there. In the last week, 50 missiles were lined up along the heavily mined Bamimakan hills pointing toward Chamchamal.

New sandbagged bunkers were installed at the checkpoint, one lane of the highway was blockaded and its shoulders landmined. The bedraggled conscripts usually guarding the border were replaced by fresh forces with unknown faces. At times Iraqi helicopters buzz overhead.

On the outskirts of the city several large pits were filled with oil and asphalt. Chamchamal residents suspect that Saddam is planning to set the pits on fire to create a giant smokescreen to befuddle allied forces.

In the city center, dirt bunkers clutter the streets, especially in the Kurdish quarters. Baath party officials loyal to Saddam Hussein are assigned by sectors, with civilians forced to report for duty. Battalions of Mujahideen I Khalq, fierce Iranian pro-Saddam fighters, have taken positions throughout the city, the drivers say.


The Takya Camp for Displaced Persons is about 20 miles from Kirkuk. Residents hope the war will allow them to return to their homes across the border in Saddam's Iraq.

The tensions are beginning to show. Last week a young teenage boy was beaten by Iraqi soldiers at the border crossing, and a woman caught smuggling heating oil was doused and set on fire. She was pushed toward Kurdistan with her hands aflame.

"It is very bad for them right now in the city," says one 24-year-old driver, giving his middle name as Ali Mohammed Ali, a Chamchamal resident. Ali, interviewed in a customs office out of sight of Iraqi spies, explained, "Each family is forced to contact the Baath security. They are organizing militias."

A public announcement warned Kirkukians that anyone leaving his house without authorization during the hostilities would be shot.

"Now the people are afraid that they will be forced to serve in the army. They are giving them guns to fight against the pesh merga [Kurdish rebel soldiers]. Even the drivers who live in Chamchamal who go to Kirkuk every day are afraid," said an 18-year-old driver. The young man starts to give his name, but the Kurdish guards say it is not safe.

As reporters stand on the road peering at Iraqi soldiers in the distance, cars and buses race by after clearing customs often honking their horns -- in welcome or in warning, it is impossible to ascertain.

On Kirkuk television beamed into Kurdistan, Kurds still living under Saddam Hussein can be seen training to fight against the invaders, dropping to the dirt to aim at the enemy. But Kurds across the border sneer at the program as little more than propaganda.

"They are very weak. Most of the normal soldiers will not fight, only the special forces. The soldiers beg inside Kirkuk for money, their salary is very limited," says Serwar Hussamdin, a Kurdish border security guard at the Chamchamal checkpoint. He too is a former Kirkuk resident, a nurse forced to flee in 1991 during the failed uprising there.

Last week an explosion in the center of Kirkuk at the Baath headquarters on Jumhurria (Republic) Street destroyed a larger-than-life portrait of Saddam Hussein. Was it Kurdish sympathizers, or even Arabs sending a message to the world that they spare no love for Saddam? No one knows, but many Kurds in the neighborhood were rounded up and arrested.

The explosion gave heart to Kurds across the border. "Surely we have a right to return. My grandfather's grave is there, my grandmother's grave. Kirkuk is a Kurdish city," Tawfiq says.

For Saddam Hussein, those are fighting words.

Gretel C. Kovach is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She reports from Iraq for AlterNet and Pacific News Service.


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