From the crumbling Assyrian ramparts of Kirkuk's 3,000-year-old citadel, the giant open-air market snaking around its base seems the very picture of communal harmony: Kurdish, Turkoman and Arab shoppers navigate through narrow lanes, past stalls selling everything from fresh fruit to plastic flowers. My police escort, a Kurd, beams down with pride. "This is the perfect Iraq," he says. "Nobody angry, everybody happy."
At ground level, the market smells of bird droppings and open drains, and the mood is murkier. An Arab vendor of pomegranates loudly endorses my escort's claim that Kirkuk is a microcosm of an ideal Iraq. But when the policeman wanders out of earshot, he hisses, "Don't believe that Kurd. His people want Kirkuk for themselves. When the Americans leave, they will drive us out."
When the Americans leave: over more than five years, that phrase has cropped up in most of my conversations in Iraq. First spoken in hope, then inevitability, it is now uttered with a sense of urgency--and among some, alarm. Under the terms of the status-of-forces agreement ratified on Nov. 27 by the Iraqi parliament, U.S. troops must leave no later than the end of 2011; a referendum next summer could bring that deadline even closer. As the drawdown gathers speed, it will diminish the U.S.'s ability to influence Iraqi affairs. "Very soon, we will no longer have foreigners to blame for our problems--or to solve them," says Amar Fayyad, a political scientist at Baghdad University. "Iraq will be walking on its own feet."
Will it strut or stumble? When U.S. forces began to pull out of Baghdad and into suburban bases in 2005, the vacuum was filled by al-Qaeda bombers and armed Shi'ite and Sunni militants, who fought a two-year civil war. Now, however, the main vectors of sectarian violence have been turned back, weakened or co-opted. Although there has been no meaningful political or social reconciliation between the sects, their representatives in parliament have learned to form expedient alliances, which will doubtless continue as the parties jockey for power in post-occupation Iraq.
But don't expect peace to break out anytime soon. In a country seething with ancient animosities, it's almost certain that politics will be attended by violence. Ahead of provincial elections in January, there's a potentially explosive Shi'ite-vs.-Shi'ite clash brewing in the south. In Sunni areas to the west and north of Baghdad, a new alliance of tribal sheiks, many of them U.S.-funded ex-insurgents, are challenging the Sunni parties currently in power.
But it is in Kirkuk where the disputes seem most intractable. At its simplest, this is an old-fashioned turf war. The Kurds want the city and its hinterlands to be folded into the northern province of Kurdistan. Turkomans (a distinct ethnic group sharing ancestry with modern Turks) and Arabs would prefer it to remain outside Kurdish hegemony, in the separate Tamim province. Each group points out that the city was once ruled by its forebears. All know that outside Kirkuk is one of Iraq's largest oil fields. Also at stake is the larger, constitutional question of whether Iraq should have a powerful central government, favored by Turkomans and Arabs, or highly autonomous regions, as the Kurds wish. And finally, there are outside influences: Turkey backs the Turkomans and, with Iran, opposes greater Kurdish power.
The Kurds have frequently warned that there may be civil war if they don't get their way; there will be if they do, say the Turkomans and Arabs. The closest the communities have come to battle was in late July: after a suicide bomber struck at a Kurdish demonstration, killing 25, Kurds turned their wrath on Turkomans, though the violence quickly subsided. Since then, a war of words has broken out. Arab politicians in Baghdad were enraged when the provincial government of Kurdistan struck deals with oil companies without consulting Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government; this was seen as proof that the Kurds were trying to grab Kirkuk's resources for themselves.
If Baghdad's Shi'ites and Sunnis can, with some help from U.S. arms and cash, come to terms, can Kirkuk's three ethnic communities find political accommodation without American assistance? U.S. officials believe it's possible. But there is no clear answer to the question, Who really has the right to decide the city's future? The last official census was in 1957, when the Turkomans had a slight edge over the Kurds, 40% to 35%. In the 1970s, Saddam Hussein sought to reorder the city's demographics by driving out some Kurds and Turkomans and busing up thousands of Arab families from the south.
When I first visited Kirkuk after the end of the U.S. war against Saddam, tens of thousands of families were streaming in from Kurdistan, all claiming to be returning natives. Many took refuge in or around the city's giant soccer stadium, expecting to be resettled soon. Protecting the shantytowns were the Kurdish militias known as the peshmerga, who had fought alongside the U.S. against Saddam. As loyal allies, the Kurds were demanding that the U.S. hand over Kirkuk.
Iraq's U.S.-appointed administrator, L. Paul Bremer, demurred, though he gave Kurds key political appointments. On my next visit two years later, Arab neighborhoods were being depleted as the Kurds sought to drive out Saddam's supporters. Turkomans and Arabs remained adamant that many of the Kurdish newcomers were not Kirkuk natives but had been sent to try to secure a majority before a new census and hence win a referendum, mandated by the new Iraqi constitution, on the city's future.
Today Kirkuk remains in limbo. No census has been taken, and several deadlines for the referendum have passed. There are still nearly 500 families in the soccer stadium. One resident told me that when some kids started a game there, a woman washing her dishes shooed them away, yelling, "Is this the place to be playing games?"
In Kirkuk, more dangerous games lie ahead--when the Americans leave.