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Oil Well Explosion in Kirkuk Highlights City’s Struggle

May 24, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT

JONATHAN MILLER, ITV News Correspondent: Captain Taashin of the Iraqi military police is sitting on a time bomb. Another car bomb exploded just 15 minutes ago in the Kurdish heart of the city. “OK,” he says, “let’s get moving.”

Car bombs going off almost every day now in Kirkuk, but the ticking time bomb is Kirkuk itself, a dusty, disputed city of 800,000 sitting on billions of barrels of oil, whose demography makes it a powder keg, the next flashpoint.

Last year, more than 300 killed in Kirkuk, 1,400 wounded. Radical Islamists groups have launched a bombing campaign. Their aim: to stoke tensions between Arabs and Kurds. Their plan is working.

“Arabs are sons of bitches,” he says.

CAPT. TAASHIN, Iraq Military Police (through translator): The terrorist who triggered the car bomb has just been caught by the people here. He’s under arrest now; he was caught with his remote.

JONATHAN MILLER: No one killed in this bombing. Most of the wounded, as usual, are Kurds. Among them, rising anger.

The failed suicide bomber is on this bloodied gurney. Captain Taashin’s police save him from being lynched. They say he’s an Arab. The man in the blue jacket threatens to blow himself up in revenge. “You’re not going to free him, are you?” this man’s yelling. “If you were a real man, you’d kill him right now in front of this camera so the whole world could see.”

Annexing Kirkuk

When the ethnic hatred that's infecting Kirkuk does explode, it threatens to open a new front in the Iraq civil war. The likely detonator: a referendum to be held in Kirkuk by the end of this year on whether the city should continue to be ruled from Baghdad or come under Kurdish control.

CAPT. TAASHIN (through translator): Since my birth, I have never seen happiness here. Back then, it was the Baathists; now, it's the terrorists. We are ready to sacrifice ourselves until the last drop of blood, including that of our children, for the city of Kirkuk, because this city is Kurdish and it belongs to Kurdistan.

JONATHAN MILLER: The Kurds want to annex Kirkuk because of the oil field beneath. Vast reserves said to contain 40 percent of Iraq's untapped oil, riches that might one day sustain an economically viable nation-state, which many suspect is the Kurds' not-so-hidden agenda.

The promise of a referendum is enshrined in Article 140 of Iraq's new constitution. Kurds say it will right the wrongs of the past, Saddam Hussein's Arabization of Kirkuk.

IRAQI KURDISH CITIZEN (through translator): The Iraqi government must give Kirkuk back to Kurdistan as quickly as possible. If Article 140 goes through, all Kirkuk's problems will be solved. The Arabs that were brought in here can be sent back to their hometowns, and the Kurds will move back into Kirkuk, the Kurdish Jerusalem.

Attracting Kurdish voters

JONATHAN MILLER: Kirkuk's Olympic stadium, built for an Olympic Games which never happened here, today, it's a campsite for 500 Kurdish families. They bake bread by the long jump; they live in the locker rooms. There's no running water. Many waiting four years now for a house.

They came at the invitation of the main Kurdish parties who've long identified the need to create more Kurdish voters in Kirkuk, even though Kurds are thought to be in the majority now.

Zana is 17.

ZANA SUR, Iraqi Kurdish Citizen (through translator): What can I do? My only wish is to get out of this place. It's impossible to be happy here.

JONATHAN MILLER: He was born in Kirkuk, but his family, along with tens of thousands of other Kurds, was forcibly removed by Saddam as part of his program to make Kirkuk Arab. In his old neighborhood, he meets an old man who remembers his father.

"Oh, yes," he says. "I remember you were living over there."

ZANA SUR (through translator): When it happened, they ordered us to leave. We asked why, and they said because we were Kurdish. We put all our stuff out. And when we came back the next day, the house had been flattened, just like it is now.

Pushing Arabs out of Kirkuk

JONATHAN MILLER: And now it's the Arab's turn. Last month, the Iraqi cabinet endorsed a controversial deal offering compensation to Arabs prepared to leave the Kurdish Jerusalem voluntarily. It's fueled fears among Arabs and local Turkmen of looming partition.

These Arabs, members of Kirkuk's Arab Council, a lobby group, are meeting to publicize the abduction and beating of one of their members last month at the hands, they say, of uniformed security force officers. Sheikh Faraan claims he was kidnapped, blindfolded and shoved into a car, where he was beaten with rifle butts. The sheikh was too scared to agree to an interview, but on his release, the Arab Council of Kirkuk documented his account of what allegedly happened at the hands of his interrogator.

SHEIKH FARAAN ABDULLAH RANEM, Arab Council, Kirkuk (through translator): He said, "You're lying. You people are trying to stop Article 140. Today we're going to show you just how we're going to implement Article 140." He said, "We're going to show you Arabs that it's either you or us." I told him we're all brothers, and we all live in one country. I think he had a piece of metal, and he hit me with it, and I was still under his feet.

JONATHAN MILLER: Kirkuk's Arabs, both Shia and Sunni Muslims, are now lying low. The Kurdish-led police enforce the city's nightly curfew, evidence that militiamen belonging to the Mahdi Army of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have moved in large numbers to Kirkuk since the U.S.-led surge in Baghdad has fueled rumors that they're readying themselves for the fight to stop Kirkuk going Kurdish.

So the police, with U.S. backup, have begun rounding up suspects in Arab neighborhoods, house-to-house searches. This man, an alleged Mahdi Army insurgent, is arrested. Most of the Arabs brought to Kirkuk by Saddam were Shia from southern Iraq. Muqtada al-Sadr's representative in Kirkuk denies the Shia militia is on standby to kill Kurds if the referendum goes ahead.

SHEIKH SAAD ASHARI, Sadr Organization, Kirkuk (through translator): No, no, they're not here. The rumors aren't true. The Mahdi Army is everywhere in Iraq. It all depends on orders from Najaf. If we get the order, we'll obey it. So far, the Mahdi Army hasn't received the order to fight the Kurds in Kirkuk if Article 140 is implemented.

JONATHAN MILLER: He's then asked what Kirkuk's Shia Muslims will do if the city does end up in Kurdish hands.

SHEIKH SAAD ASHARI (through translator): We will completely reject this, and we'll await our orders.

JONATHAN MILLER: And so it seems that the bombs are destined to keep on going off, and Kirkuk's hospital is doomed to echo with the screams of survivors. That's what the International Crisis Group is warning: A referendum, it says, conducted against the wishes of non-Kurds very likely to cause the civil war to spread, but a referendum postponed could hasten Kurdish secession.

And that is the explosive Kirkuk conundrum. The fuse has already been lit.