As Most Militias Leave Kirkuk, Kurd-Arab Tensions Rise

By Karl Vick and Steve Vogel

KIRKUK, Iraq, April 13 -- Fulfilling a promise intended to keep Turkey from sending troops into northern Iraq, Kurdish militias today largely completed their withdrawal from this politically sensitive city. But Kurds were still very much present in Kirkuk, some of them apparently trying to retake property from Arabs and others staffing an office to hear Arabs' grievances.

By late afternoon, most of the uniformed Kurdish pesh merga militiamen who remained inside Kirkuk were serving as security details for Kurdish officials trying to undo some of the damage from two days of looting by Kurds. Although looting in the city proper had been stemmed, Arab neighborhoods were appealing to the U.S. Army for protection, reporting that some Arabs had been confronted by former residents seeking to reclaim their homes.

The government of Saddam Hussein pursued a policy of forcibly removing many Kurdish and Turkmen residents from their homes and replacing them with Arabs. The abrupt collapse of Hussein's Baath Party government and the triumphant arrival in Kirkuk of the Kurdish militiamen -- events that set off multiethnic celebrations last week -- also washed the city in the passionate politics of exile communities rushing back.

There were reports that three people were killed today in an Arab neighborhood, but accounts of what happened were in dispute.

A platoon of Bradley Fighting Vehicles from the 1st Infantry Division was dispatched into the neighborhood in the southern part of the city late tonight.

"We're trying to deter hostile acts, but we are not the police force," said Lt. Col. Ken Riddle, commander of the 1st Battalion, 63rd Armor Regiment.

"It's a really serious problem," said Shalaw Askari, a senior official of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which sent the most militiamen here from the northern autonomous zone Kurds have governed since 1991. "They're looting. And there are some reports they are raping women.

"This kind of thing is not forgotten," Askari added. "I don't know if we can stop it."

Across the city, Arabs looked for someone to hear their complaints of mistreatment at the hands of Kurds.

At what had been the main Kirkuk office of the Baath Party, PUK officials received complaining Arabs in the only room that had not been seriously pillaged. The portrait of Hussein, however, had been replaced by one of the founder of the PUK, Jalal Talabani.

Mansi Hammad Isa had driven into town from the village of Rashad behind the wheel of a dented black Chevrolet Caprice. He said it was one of the few cars in his area that had not been looted.

"These boys who came from your area are looting us, they are putting us in a big hullabaloo," said Isa, a member of the Obeid tribe. "Why are they coming? Do you want to rule or just live in peace?"

Sabhan Hamid, a retired oil executive, said: "I worked with the Americans and the British for two-thirds of my life. Now I have my belongings taken from my home, and I ask your help."

His case may include complications. Hamid said many of the missing tools and appliances, gathered over 50 years, were taken from the home of his son. A neighbor who accompanied the retiree discreetly noted that the son, who had been an Iraqi brigadier, fled in the direction of Mosul after the fall of Baghdad.

But these details make Kirkuk the tangle of history, ethnicity and grievance that it is.

As Hussein relocated Arabs to northern Iraq, Kurds and Turkmen were deprived of the right to purchase property, while poor Arabs who moved to Kirkuk were rewarded with cash and real estate.

"It was a political decision to Arabize this area," said Ali Hussein Salman. "It was a good opportunity for us, because we had no piece of land where we were."

So Salman, 82, was alarmed when Kurdish men came to his house and gave him three days to leave -- or see his furniture put in the street, he said. With a dozen other Arab men, all middle-aged or older, he petitioned foreign journalists after being turned away from the local government building where U.S. officers had replaced Kurdish officials only a day earlier.

"We are poor," Salman said. "When we came, we were given furniture and money. Give us money and furniture and we can go back."

"We will have to sleep on the streets," said Ghalib Azaiz.

Another man waved an ID card with the name Haki Khalil. "I am a soldier," he shouted. "They told me if you don't fight, if you go home, we'll give you democracy.

"Where is the democracy?"

But U.S. military officials are not close to being able to answer that question. They are only beginning to address the basic survival needs of the city, now deprived of electricity, water and gas by a system that interlocks the three utilities.

Today, Humvees from the 173rd Airborne Brigade escorted water trucks to points around the city, while a pair of M1-A1 Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles joined patrols.

The tanks spent 30 minutes near a government building downtown, drawing crowds as they turned their turrets and scanned the area. "It makes a statement," said Lt. Col. Sean Callahan, the deputy brigade commander.

Commanders said they would continue to send armored units into the Arab section indefinitely. Tanks will also likely be placed at two checkpoints the brigade has established on major roads leading into the city. The troops are barring anyone with weapons from entering the city.

Traffic was light inside the city after the PUK blocked most traffic from Sulaymaniyah, the Kurdish city where most of Kirkuk's displaced have resided since losing their homes here.

In a gesture intended to make amends for the widespread looting, PUK security forces have retrieved 73 stolen vehicles found in Kurdish territory and will return them to their rightful owners in Kirkuk later in the week, Askari said.

If the Kurds who stole them felt entitled by the loss of their property under Hussein's government, Kurdish officials said, their grievances will be addressed by the rule of law. A commission is being planned to trace the source of property, determine ownership and accommodate the displaced.

"We want to reverse ethnic cleansing, and the original inhabitants of Kirkuk will return to Kirkuk, and we will turn it into a city of peaceful coexistence," said Barham Salih, the PUK's prime minister.

But emotions are still near the surface. Tonight, an angry group of men from the Iraqi Turkmen Front ferried the corpse of a 7-year-old boy to the hotel where foreign journalists are staying. The body was draped in a Turkmen Front flag and laid on the roof of a taxi. Most of the child's head was gone.

The protesters said the boy was killed by gunmen who sprayed automatic-weapons fire toward a Turkmen Front office an hour earlier. Several accused Kurds. Others slammed their fists on the taxi hood and chanted for Turkey to bring its troops: "Turkey! Turkey! Let them come!"

A Turkmen Front official, Tasin Shakerji, was more circumspect. "We don't accuse anyone at this moment," he said. "Tomorrow morning, after we make our investigation, we'll have a statement."

The demonstrators left the child's body in front of the hotel. When the hotel management refused to act, a journalist brought the situation to the attention of the nearby 173rd Airborne Brigade command post, whose officers persuaded Turkmen Front officials to take the child out of the street.