Monday, July 6, 2009

Kirkuk Bomb Kills Iraq Peace Hopes After U.S. Pullout


By Daniel Williams

July 6 (Bloomberg) -- Jamal Tahir Bakr, police chief of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk, expected the euphoria over the U.S. withdrawal from Iraqi cities to end, just not so quickly.

A car bomb blew up a city bazaar and killed 37 people on June 30, the official withdrawal date. It put an end to any illusion that the U.S. pullout, coupled with heightened control by the Iraqi police and army, would bring peace, he said.

"People were getting hypnotized by the idea that normal times were here," Bakr said in an interview the day after the bombing. "It didn't make any difference how much you warned them, they had it in their heads. And then the bomb. The real situation is now clear: The problems are not over."

Too many conflicts are unresolved, Iraqis in Kirkuk say. An insurgency led by Sunni Muslims that rejects the Shiite Muslim- dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki persists. Kirkuk is rent by a long-running feud between the local Kurdish population and Arab Iraqis. U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden warned al-Maliki on July 3 that the U.S. might disengage from the country if it reverts to sustained violence.

Iraqi police aren't prepared to take on the heavy burden of securing a city of 1 million people, its own officials say. There aren't enough of them. And the region around Kirkuk, which supplies 25 percent of Iraq's oil exports, doesn't get enough funds from the central government for more police.

'Fooling Ourselves'

"Normal? Maybe we were fooling ourselves," said Sadiq Mohammed Burhan, 56, who lost seven relatives in the bombing.

Iraqi inability to control violence as the U.S. makes its phased exit by the end of 2011 may hamper President Barack Obama's push to shift military resources to Afghanistan. The U.S. and NATO allies there are fighting al-Qaeda, the global terrorist organization, and its Afghan allies.

Obama called the Kirkuk bombing "senseless" on June 30 and warned of "difficult days ahead," though he said the pullout was an "important milestone."

Al-Maliki labeled the urban withdrawal an Iraqi victory over "foreign occupiers" and said in a June 30 Baghdad speech that "the national united government succeeded in putting down the sectarian war that was threatening the unity and sovereignty of Iraq."

U.S. military officials blame the bombing on the Islamic State of Iraq, an insurgent group made up of members of deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's Baathist party. The bomber parked his car, bought some groceries, put them atop the vehicle and walked off. As he faded into the crowd, the car exploded, incinerating shoppers, merchants and live chickens on sale.

Concrete Barriers

Government television has run reports faulting Bakr's police for not patrolling properly and for lifting concrete barriers from the market area, which let unrestricted car traffic flood the bazaar.

After the bombing, the Ministry of the Interior in Baghdad ordered him to reinstall the barriers, Bakr said. His reaction: "We are supposed to have 13,000 police in Kirkuk. The government says it only has money for 11,000. We are the least protected city in Iraq."

Security forces have also become specific targets. Between July 2 and July 4, gunmen using silencers killed a soldier, a policeman and then another soldier and his brother on Kirkuk streets.

"We know they want to discredit the Iraqi security forces. This is a way of saying, the forces can't even protect themselves," said Major Christopher Norrie, operations officer with the U.S. army stationed outside Kirkuk.

Oil's decline from a peak of $145 a barrel last July to about $67 has reduced revenue, which Bakr says is one reason why he isn't getting enough police resources. He also says he suspects the central government is dragging its feet because the city council is dominated by Kurds.

Oil Reserves

Bids to develop two major oil fields in the region -- part of an effort to attract foreign petroleum companies and increase production -- failed on June 29 and 30 when companies couldn't agree on terms with the government.

Burdin Hickok, senior banking and finance adviser for the U.S. State Department's Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kirkuk, predicts that unrest may curb existing output at these fields and hinder exploration of unexploited reserves that potentially hold 6 percent of the world's oil.

The biggest risk to the area's oil production comes from Kurdish-Arab tensions, he said. Kurds, who control an autonomous region in northeastern Iraq, want to annex Kirkuk and nearby rural communities. Thousands of Kurds were expelled from the region during the 1970s by Hussein. Arab Iraqis insist that Kirkuk remain outside Kurdish control.

No Security

Residents of the burned-out market say the dispute was at the heart of the bombing: All of the victims were Kurds.

"The Arabs don't want to give us our rights," said Ghalib Jalal Shaqwan, whose brother survived after being burned in the explosion.

That is hindsight. The merchants themselves had lobbied to get cement barriers removed and told police they would hire their own security forces. They didn't.

"We didn't think we needed to spend the money," said Shaqwan, 30. "We believed things were getting better. Why else were the Americans leaving?"

One bomb changed everything. The sellers in the bazaar want constant police patrols. They want the barriers. And they want the Americans back.

"They should stay for 25 years," Shaqwan said as a clutch of bystanders nodded. "That's how long peace will take."

To contact the reporter on this story: Daniel Williams in Kirkuk at

Last Updated: July 6, 2009 02:47 EDT

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