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Law and Order -- and Unnerving Gunfire -- in Kirkuk

May 18, 2003|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

KIRKUK, Iraq — Midway through the U.S. commanding general's proclamation of peace and brotherhood here Saturday, gunfire erupted outside the heavily fortified government compound where he was addressing town leaders.

"Get back! Get back!" U.S. soldiers shouted at hundreds of Iraqi civilians, mostly Kurds, gathered between coils of concertina wire to plead for jobs or help in regaining homes and land taken away during Saddam Hussein's regime.

In a frantic attempt to escape the gunfire behind them, the crowd had pushed forward, prompting U.S. sentries to fire machine-gun salvos in warning. The panicked throng then rushed off, snagging skin, clothes and documents on the barrier protecting the U.S. troops who are still the only authority in this oil-rich city the size of Denver.

Minutes later and a few blocks away, running street battles broke out between knife-wielding Kurdish youths and Arabs who witnesses said were behind the city hall shooting incident. By midafternoon, shops were shuttered and streets that had been teeming with commerce in the morning were empty.

It was clearly the wrong day to declare victory in the coalition's fight here against the enemies of law and order.

But Army Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. troops in northeastern Iraq, carried on with his address to the civic leaders, insisting that the disturbances were the work of a criminal few and that the resuscitation of Kirkuk would go on undaunted.

Conditions in Iraq's most important oil city have indeed improved dramatically in the five weeks since 173rd Airborne Brigade troops arrived April 10. Water, power, banks, schools and a fledgling police force are up and running, and the U.S. troops are paying public workers from seized government coffers.

But the panic incited outside the government building and its spillover across the Khasa River was an ominous reminder of the work yet to be done to secure the peace.

It was also a pointed reminder that the Pentagon-run Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance has yet to put its oar into the postwar rebuilding effort here, leaving the 2,500 U.S. troops of the 173rd Airborne to shoulder both peacekeeping and restoration of public services.

"ORHA is not functioning yet. They're here, but they're remodeling their offices," Najib Salihi, chairman of the Free Officers and Civilian Movement long opposed to Hussein's Baath Party regime, observed caustically.

An exile who spent the past quarter-century in Washington, D.C., and Sioux Falls, S.D., Salihi came back to his hometown in March to help in the fight against Hussein's forces and has been advising the U.S. troops.

Col. William Mayville of the 173rd Airborne swiftly deployed his troops to restore essential services and has single-handedly put together an ethnically balanced, 500-member police force that is slowly earning the respect of the 1.2 million people of Kirkuk and its surroundings, Salihi said. But he estimated there are 250,000 guns in the city and urged Mayville's troops, recently augmented by Odierno's 4th Infantry Division, to conduct house-to-house searches to disarm the public.

"There's a risk of civil war if they don't do something about it, and unfortunately the enemy side is stronger," Salihi said of local members of Hussein's Baath Party who are still at large.

Sweeping the city for weapons is possible now that military reinforcements have arrived, Mayville said.

The fragility of the U.S. troops' accomplishments became disturbingly clear with the clashes in the Shorja neighborhood, a focus of Hussein's "Arabization" process. The now-deposed Iraqi leader expelled thousands of Kurds, Turkmens and Assyrians after the 1991 Persian Gulf War and subsequent Kurdish uprising. Arabs were then moved into the emptied homes to redefine Kirkuk as a predominantly Arab city.

Odierno insisted that the various ethnic communities have pledged to work together to put their common suffering under dictatorship behind them. Mayville's fighters-turned-mediators have even negotiated a deal between Kurds and Arabs in the countryside to share proceeds from this year's harvest of contested crops planted by Arab farmers resettled on Kurdish land.

But the continuing presence of Hussein backers and the prevalence of weapons leave the troops and Kirkuk's population vulnerable to provocations and to manipulation of social strains.

A cut-to-the-chase kind of soldier, Mayville said he recognized as soon as his brigade arrived that there was no time to waste waiting for the postwar reconstruction forces to restore essential services to a shell-shocked public.

"We saw that if we don't fix these problems, they're not gonna get fixed," the colonel said of the broken water system, power failures, empty schools and workplaces.

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