KIRKUK, IRAQ — The general with the easy smile has been here before. A little over a decade ago, Saddam Hussein dispatched him to this province where the oil wells belch orange flames day and night.
Now another Iraqi Arab leader has sent him north, in a battle of wills over Kirkuk that has awakened the past and raised fear of new fighting in the territory that the Kurds consider their Jerusalem. Already, one of his units has confiscated some Kurdish farmland for a base, stirring memories of Hussein's attempts to uproot the Kurdish population and settle Arabs.
Maj. Gen. Abdul Amir Zaidi laughs at the rumors about him swirling in Kirkuk province, especially the one about him being related to Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who ordered Zaidi here to head a new Arab-led army division after he pulled out the Kurdish-led 4th division in July.
Zaidi is firm about what the government intends to do -- remove Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, from this bitterly disputed province, which is home to as much as 13% of Iraq's oil reserves and borders the semiautonomous Kurdistan region.
He makes it clear that the time has come for the peshmerga to leave Kirkuk province's northern areas, though he insists that their departure will be the result of negotiations.
"What's the point of the [peshmerga] going outside the boundaries of Kurdistan? When they do this, they are a militia carrying weapons," he says.
Under Maliki's orders, Zaidi's division has begun dismantling the Kurds' careful efforts since Hussein was ousted in 2003 to annex the province through a monopoly of local government power and mastery of the area's security branches. Maliki's government is finally asserting Baghdad's authority, but the Kurds cannot forget how similar nationalist ambitions have ended in tragedy for them.
Kurds headed the old division, but Zaidi's 13,000-man force is 75% Arab.
In its eight months in Kirkuk, the Iraqi army has begun scouting roads in northern districts of the province, which had been considered the peshmerga's domain.
All of this has come with no sign of a negotiated resolution of Kirkuk's status between the Kurdish regional government and Baghdad. The province's future is being debated in two national committees and awaits the suggestions of a United Nations report to be released next month. But most of those involved believe that the chance of a solution before the scheduled withdrawal of U.S. combat troops by August 2010 is wishful thinking.
The brinkmanship risks sparking a new Kurdish-Arab conflict if no solution is found by then -- and could do so sooner.
Aware of the dangers, the U.S. military has increased its presence from one battalion to a combat brigade in hope of putting Kirkuk on the right path.
Since the 12th Iraqi army division's arrival, the Americans have already been called in to mediate confrontations that risked tipping over into violence.
The American commander in northern Iraq, Maj. Gen. Robert Caslen, says his soldiers have been able to cool tempers and establish communication channels between the sides. Despite such strides, he says there is still the risk that one side will open fire on the other.
"This situation right here is the most dangerous course of action for Iraq in the near future," Caslen said. "It's very important that Iraq gets it right. If we don't, a lot of the change we've had over the last couple of years could go in a heartbeat as a result of something going wrong in those particular areas."
For the Kurds, Zaidi is a symbol of all that has soured in their relationship with Prime Minister Maliki. In his black beret and olive fatigues, Zaidi represents the old regime to them, a figure intimately involved in northern Iraq's history of struggle between Kurds and Arabs.
In turn, Arab leaders have rallied to the general, seeing him as a counterbalance to the peshmerga. The Americans have praised Zaidi for moving cautiously as he expands the army's role in Kurdish areas.
"He realizes every step he takes is something that has to be negotiated," Caslen said.
On a recent night, the general slouched in an armchair and smoked several cigarettes in his office on the edge of the region's flat gray oil fields.
He lets out a loud laugh at the rumors. Kurds say he was imprisoned by the Americans after the war, then released. Others say he participated in the 1980s Anfal campaign against the Kurds as a young officer, which he denies. He especially likes the one about being related to the prime minister.
"It would be an honor for me to be related to Maliki," Zaidi says with zest. He swats away the allegations about jail time with another laugh and eases his massive frame back into his chair.
Even as he professes bonhomie and thrusts his ring finger to make a point, his words reveal strains between him and the Kurds. He reiterates that Kurdish forces should not be active in Kirkuk's northern districts, which border Kurdistan: "This is outside their jurisdiction."