ALTUN KUPRI, IRAQ — A U.S. Army colonel danced the debka at a garden party in this rural village last month, hand in hand with half a dozen former Kurdish guerrillas.
They were a study in contrasts: Col. Patrick Stackpole with crisp fatigues and a blond buzz cut, pistol strapped to his thigh, stomping along with swarthy peshmerga fighters with thick black mustaches, baggy shirwal pants and Muslim prayer beads.
Stackpole's soldiers, based in nearby Kirkuk, joined in or sat cradling automatic rifles as a military interpreter explained the dual purpose of the dance.
"They do it for a wedding or a ceremony, something like that," he said. "Or when they want to go to war."
Resource-rich Kirkuk and its surrounding province are prized by Iraq's various ethnic groups and could soon become another full-blown battleground in the widening civil war. The rolling hills produce 40% of the country's oil and 70% of its natural gas.
This year, Kirkuk residents face landmark votes that military experts say could spark sectarian violence: on how to draw provincial borders, and whether to conduct a census and join the semiautonomous Kurdish regional government.
The party Stackpole attended was held on land that had been seized from a Kurdish family and settled by Shiite Muslims. The property recently was returned to the original owners. Nearby, dozens of other Kurdish refugees are camped out in some of Saddam Hussein's former forts.
Goal of stabilizing area
Stackpole and his troops are attempting to forestall violence with a hearts-and-minds campaign that includes reaching out to both Kurds and Arabs, doling out reconstruction money and reinforcing political parties. And dancing.
"Never in my life did I think I would see a brigade commander from an infantry unit doing this," said Army Maj. Frank Strong, a reservist from McLean, Va., before joining the dance party.
The fete in this town, population 20,000, was orchestrated by a politician who has been one of the most receptive to U.S. overtures: provincial council Chairman Rizgar Ali Hamajan.
The Americans are counting on Hamajan, a Kurd and former peshmerga, to hold Kirkuk's provincial council together. Arab and Turkmen politicians are boycotting the council, citing a list of grievances.
Hamajan meets with them privately to sign off on legislation and the local budget. This month, he is to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, President Jalal Talabani, who is Kurdish, and the country's two vice presidents to discuss the upcoming votes, mandated by Iraq's new constitution.
During the party, Hamajan explained to Stackpole why he needed more reconstruction money. Sunni Arab insurgents are scaring off workers and investors, he said.
"We need to have opportunities for young people other than doing bad things, so they have someplace to go; not just the imam from Mosul coming to teach them bad things," Hamajan said as the electricity flickered off and on. "We may have lost the older generation, but we need to work with the younger generation."
Discussion over dumplings
As they sat down to lunch at two long tables laden with freshly grilled lamb kebabs, grilled bass, kifta meat dumplings, bulgur wheat and rice sprinkled with paprika, Hamajan said he was not optimistic that violence could be controlled in Kirkuk. After Hussein's execution in December, he said, attacks by Sunni insurgents started to increase.
"Now, it is chaos in Iraq," Hamajan said. He began eating with his hands; Stackpole followed suit.
After lunch, as the military guests piled back into their Humvees for the convoy back to their base, they pronounced the party an exceptional occasion, a rare chance to speak freely with politicians and learn something about local culture.
Stackpole, who would be taunted mercilessly back at the base about his prowess on the dance floor, declared it "a history lesson of sorts."