KIRKUK, IRAQ — A staunch Arab nationalist, Ismail Hadidi once dreaded the possibility that his ethnically diverse city would be swallowed up by the neighboring semiautonomous Kurdish region and cut off from the Baghdad government.
But the provincial councilman is also a practical man. And when he compares the chaos and violence in the Iraqi capital with the prosperity and peace next door in the three-province Kurdistan Regional Government area, teaming up with the Kurds doesn't seem like such a bad idea. He's even considering buying some property in the Kurdish enclave.
"The people of Kirkuk were afraid of this," said Hadidi, a Sunni Arab tribal leader. "But given the situation, I believe most people will move toward being part of Kurdistan, because what the people want above all is security."
Uncertainty clouds Iraq's future, but not so much here. The Kurdish region's exploding economic and political power has begun to shape northern Iraq's reality.
Oil-rich and ethnically diverse Kirkuk, the capital of Tamim province, was billed as northern Iraq's most contested prize in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and its fate was to be resolved by the new Iraqi Constitution, which instead mandated a referendum. But that hasn't happened yet. And now, just as medieval peasants clung to local warlords who could protect them from looters and bandits, this gritty city's war- and poverty-ravaged population has begun gravitating toward the Kurds, who are hungrily reclaiming territory lost to successive waves of Arabization.
Few doubt what will happen when U.S. forces exit. Grown strong and rich in their enclave of more than 16,000 square miles, Iraq's Kurds will rush to annex Tamim and other areas in Diyala and Nineveh provinces they have laid claim to, which could double the size of their de facto state.
"The Kurdistan region will include all parts of Iraq that are historically and geographically part of Kurdistan," predicted Omer Fattah, deputy premier of the Kurdistan Regional Government, which is based in Irbil.
Hussein and leaders of earlier Arab-dominated Baghdad governments sought to upend the oil-rich region's ethnic balance by forcibly evicting tens of thousands of Kurds and other non-Arab minorities and replacing them with Arab settlers. A referendum on whether Kirkuk and its outlying province will join the Kurdish region is scheduled to take place by year's end.
However, many doubt the vote will be held. Politicians in Baghdad said this week it can't be held until well into 2008. Kurds blame the delays on U.S. reluctance to address an explosive Iraqi political issue. At the same time, Kurds say the Americans are increasingly less of a factor in the north. Kirkuk security officials say U.S. forces have already moved from the city to more volatile Baghdad and central Iraq.
A U.S. Army spokesman in Kirkuk skirted the question of redeployment. "Our brigade remains committed to providing security and partnering with Iraqi forces to maintain stability in the Kirkuk province," said Maj. Derrick W. Cheng of the 31st Brigade Combat Team in response to an e-mail query.
Kurds say they don't mind the Americans leaving. "We are thinking about it and preparing for it," said Abdul-Salaam Berwari, who runs a think tank close to the Kurdish leadership. "It's OK for us if they do that."
Kurdish officials suggest that it might be better if the U.S. pulled out of day-to-day operations in the north. Without Washington's political obligations to fellow North Atlantic Treaty Organization member Turkey, which fears Kurdish regional ambitions, many Kurds believe they can resolve the Kirkuk dilemma themselves.
"You'll never find a single Kurd willing to give up Kirkuk whether the Americans are here or not," said one official of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of the two main Kurdish parties in Iraq. He spoke anonymously because he said his view and that of many others was not the official Kurdish position.
Just as Kurds exploited Iraq's chaos after the 1991 Gulf War to build their enclave, they've begun quietly incorporating Tamim province and reversing the Arab migration.
Kurds have also in effect taken up security duties in other traditionally Kurdish lands and villages, including oil-rich Makhmour, northwest of Kirkuk, and Khanaqin, farther south in Diyala province. Kurds emphasize that the bombings that killed at least 400 Yazidis, a religious minority that is ethnically Kurdish, last month fell just outside the zone of Kurdish control.
Already at least 58,000 Arabs have left the Kirkuk region, said Kamal Kirkuki, deputy speaker of the Kurdish parliament. He said the Kurds have collected a trove of documents to determine who belongs in Kirkuk and who does not, including records of all Arabs who arrived in Kirkuk from 1968, when Hussein's Baath Party consolidated power, to the Iraqi leader's ouster in 2003.
"We could solve the Kirkuk issue in one minute," Kirkuki said. "All we need is a political decision."
The Irbil-based regional government bankrolls the teaching of the Kurdish language in Kirkuk schools. New housing sprouts on the no-man's land that served for 12 years as a buffer between Hussein's Iraq and the three Kurdish provinces, Irbil, Dahuk and Sulaymaniya, that were protected by American and British air power.
Soon, 5,000 overwhelmingly Kurdish Iraqi army troops will begin patrolling the countryside around Kirkuk, ostensibly to protect oil and electricity lines, but also to form a de facto barrier between the area and the rest of Iraq. The controversial patrols were approved by the Baghdad government.
"Our problem is coming from the terrorists who are outside the city," said Police Chief Gen. Jamal Taher, a Kurd. "What we want to do is to protect ourselves from the rest of the provinces where the terrorists are."
The proposal has outraged some of the city's Turkmen and Arab leaders, who see it as a ploy to extend Kurdish control.
"This is a barrel of TNT," said Hassan Torhan, an ethnic Turkmen politician and a member of the Turkmen Front, which is backed by Turkey. "Saddam Hussein tried to Arabize Kirkuk, Now the two parties are trying to 'Kurdize' Kirkuk."
Torhan frequents Irbil's new international airport. He drives there through newly constructed tunnels and freshly asphalted streets and past shiny new hotels, restaurants, office buildings and apartment blocks.
Kurds boast that not a single non-Iraqi has been killed in their semiautonomous region since April 9, 2003. They say they've drawn on decades of intelligence experience from their dealings with Western and Middle Eastern spy agencies to keep militants at bay.
They've also incorporated into the political process many of the Kurdish Islamist groups that share the same extremist religious outlook as Al Qaeda.
Around Irbil, they've strengthened a gigantic earthen berm to keep militants out. Ironically, the trench was dug by Hussein during the 1980s to keep the city out of the hands of Kurdish guerrillas now running much of the north.
Meanwhile, in the 4 1/2 years since the invasion of Iraq, life inside Kirkuk has only become more dangerous. Grinding poverty persists. Insurgent bombings and gunfire daily target soldiers, police officers and civilians. Barbed wire and concrete blast barriers line the city's unkempt boulevards as Black Hawk helicopters hover above.
Fifteen minutes into a day-long foray into the city, a visiting Western reporter was accosted by a burly man who drew a 9-millimeter semiautomatic handgun on him and taunted his driver. It was an off-duty police officer venting frustration over a minor traffic incident.
Kirkuk officials believe Kurds can do a better job of providing security than either the Iraqi or U.S. security forces.
"There will be bloodshed if the Americans leave," said Brig. Gen. Hamid Salar, head of Kirkuk's traffic police. "But if the Kurdish authorities would be given responsibility, the terrorist activity would immediately drop 50%."
Looking at life without the Americans, some Arabs in Kirkuk whisper that at least the Kurds are mostly Sunni Muslims, whereas the Baghdad government is dominated by Shiite Muslims with close ties to Iran. The Kurds also generally have a much better record on human rights and treatment of minorities than does Baghdad, where security forces are full of Shiite militiamen and sectarian death squads have run rampant.
But some worry as to how the Kurds might behave without U.S. scrutiny. Recently, Arabs who fled to Kirkuk to escape sectarian killings elsewhere in Iraq have reported being rousted from their homes by Kurdish-dominated security forces and ordered to move again, lest they upset the city's ethnic balance ahead of the referendum.
"We were informed that we have to leave our houses that we have rented for over a year and a half," said Radhi Mohammed, who fled Baghdad's Bayaa neighborhood for Kirkuk with 13 family members.
"Police arrested one of my sons and told us to leave or they will detain my son until we do so."