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A Tense City Moves Closer to Self-Rule

New council in Kirkuk, Iraq, overcomes ethnic strife to choose leaders. A U.S. businessman loses out to a non-exile for the mayor's post.

May 29, 2003|Azadeh Moaveni | Times Staff Writer

KIRKUK, Iraq — With Apache attack helicopters circling overhead and U.S. soldiers standing guard, a new municipal council in this fractious northern city chose the top officials in an interim government Wednesday.

The smooth election of an ethnic Kurdish mayor and an Arab deputy mayor in Kirkuk, northern Iraq's oil capital, elicited cautious optimism among residents and the U.S. occupation force that brokered the city's tentative step toward self-government.

The election came off despite tensions last week over the arrest of Arab council delegates with suspected ties to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, and a dispute over ethnic representation on the council that had threatened to postpone the vote.

Meanwhile, in nearby Irbil, the new U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, met with the local chamber of commerce and with Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, seeking to reassure Kurds that they will not be left behind in the new Iraq.

Bremer promised that the U.S. occupation authority would help the local government revitalize its war-damaged economy and pay its civil servants. But he made no public mention of a time frame for forming an interim national government -- a subject of considerable importance to the Kurds of northern Iraq. They have lived independently since 1991 in a protected zone that was out of Hussein's reach, and they are eager to begin building on the progress made in 12 years of self-government.

In Kirkuk, days of backroom negotiations eventually produced an ethnically diverse government that met the minimum expectations of the city's Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian and Turkmen communities. But the bitter struggle for consensus over an interim administration with only modest authority underscores the complexity of the tasks ahead.

"I urge you to begin with those issues you can agree on," Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division, advised the new city officials at their swearing-in ceremony.

He said the new city government should wait to deal with controversial issues until it can examine them unemotionally and until a national government is in place.

Among the most difficult issues is resettlement. Hussein made Kirkuk the center of his "Arabization" policy, clearing Kurds from their homes and replacing them with Arabs. The city emerged as the symbol of Kurdish oppression under the regime. Kurdish leaders frequently refer to Kirkuk as "our Jerusalem."

The new local government must figure out how to allow displaced Kurds and members of other ethnic groups to move back without provoking hostility among Arabs accustomed to years of privilege. Earlier this month, tensions exploded into violence, leaving nearly a dozen people dead.

"Today you face a great burden serving this dear city, because your inheritance is heavy with grief, suffering and destruction," said Noureddin Zangeneh, Kirkuk's chief judge. "The mayor will not succeed unless he embroiders all ethnicities into the fabric of the city."

One Arab delegate, whose group had threatened to boycott the election of the mayor and deputy mayor after Kurds ended up as the majority in a bloc of council independents selected by Odierno, said his faction had accepted the minor imbalance.

"We'd rather not be absent from the process," said Nayef Sobhan Khalef.

Council members observed the proceedings with an air of tired satisfaction, but one failed mayoral candidate sat slumped in his chair, fingering worry beads dejectedly.

Ali Salhi, an Iraqi exile and successful businessman who lived in the United States for the last 28 years, returned to Kirkuk in March with the sole objective of becoming its mayor.

"I am what people here want, I am Kirkuk's choice," he said Tuesday. He pulled out of the race just before the election once it became clear that he was not supported by the council majority.

Salhi had campaigned on the premise that his blend of national consciousness and American know-how made him ideal to spearhead his homeland's recovery. He opened an office in City Hall and worked as an advisor to the U.S. military brigade that oversaw the return of basic services in the days after the Hussein regime's fall.

But many council members argued that Kirkuk's fragility demanded a mayor familiar to residents, someone who would be better placed to forge consensus.

"There's a difference between those who've sacrificed and those who haven't, and people can distinguish this," said Rizgar Ali Hamajan, a Kurdish council member.

Salhi's inability to carve out a political role in Kirkuk despite enjoying the clear favor of the U.S. military controlling the area comes as another exile and U.S. favorite, Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi, struggles to retain a voice in talks over an interim government at the national level in Baghdad.

If Salhi's experience in Kirkuk is any indication, Iraqis welcome the participation of well-heeled and savvy exiles in the country's reconstruction but are reluctant to grant them leading political roles. Those positions, many here said, belong to Iraqis who witnessed the brutality and divisive ways of Hussein's regime.

"We want someone who knows what we've endured," said Karvan Shamil, a high school student.

The new mayor, Kurdish lawyer Abdulrahman Mostafa, ran as an independent, without formal affiliation with either of the two Kurdish groups that control northern Iraq.

Ismail Ahmed Rajab, an Arab, was elected deputy mayor. Odierno chose an ethnic Turk as speaker of the council.

After the swearing-in, Kurds outside City Hall -- including uniformed police officers -- danced in the street to celebrate what they called the rightful return of the city to Kurdish custodianship.

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