By Charles McDermid
KIRKUK, Iraq - The first time Kurdish resistance hero Mam Rostam led a rowdy convoy through the streets of Kirkuk was March 21, 1991, after his guerrilla fighters stormed down from the surrounding dun-colored mountains to rout the occupying troops of Saddam Hussein's Iraqi army.
Twelve years later, he held his hometown for three days as field commander of the Kurdish Peshmerga after the United States-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam and set off bloody sectarian and ethnic battles that continue to consume disputed parts of Iraq, notably Kirkuk.
Last Friday, Rostam was at it again; riding shotgun in the lead car of a 100-vehicle procession filled with boisterous young men, children and battle-scarred soldiers. Flags and AK-47s waved from SUV windows and the beds of pick-up trucks as the procession wound past Kirkuk's crumbling ancient citadel, its perpetually flaming gas and oil fires, and its sprawling mud-brick refugee camps.
"In 1991, we liberated Kirkuk from dictatorship, this time we are liberating it from corruption," said Rostam.
This was opening day for political campaigning ahead of Iraq's much-anticipated national parliamentary elections on March 7, and Rostam was representing Goran (Change), an upstart political movement digging in at the frontline of what many believe will be the most hotly contested electoral battle in the country.
It will certainly be Iraq's most-scrutinized local election.
Kirkuk province sits on gargantuan oil fields with the potential to gush petrodollars - and the accompanying political capital - for decades. The 970-kilometer Kirkuk-Ceyhan is already Iraq's largest crude oil export line, pumping an estimated 500,000 barrels to the coast of Turkey every day.
Due to its ethno-religious diversity, Kirkuk is referred to as "Little Iraq" - a microcosm of the fractious nation's divided and uncompromising communities. If a panacea for Iraq's problems can be found, Kirkuk would be the ideal spot to test it.
Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen have fought for control of the millennia-old city since Iraq's independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1919. Each of the ethnic groups claims Kirkuk as a historical homeland, and all have made it clear their members are willing to die for it.
"Kirkuk is the Jerusalem of Kurdistan," Rostam told Asia Times Online.
Since the US-led invasion of 2003, Kirkuk has been a listed as a "disputed territory" between Baghdad and Irbil, the capital of Iraq's politically autonomous Kurdistan region. It stands as the main potential flashpoint on what's known as the "trigger line" - the boundary running from Iran to Syria that separates heavily armed Arab and Kurdish forces that are kept at arm's length by the presence of US forces.
Many power-sharing equations have been discussed to placate Kirkuk's competing factions, but none have been enacted. Most recently, the United Nations proposed creating a "special status" for Kirkuk for up to 10 years - a move supported by Washington and Ankara .The UN proposal would give Kirkuk political autonomy but prevent it from joining or being annexed by Kurdistan .
Conventional wisdom holds that if the Kurds can control Kirkuk and its hydrocarbon bounty, they will be one step closer to their dream of an independent state. This ambition has been frowned on by the Kurds' biggest ally, the US, and has drawn outrage from Syria, Iran and Turkey, which have large Kurdish populations.
Now, for the first time in five years, Kirkuk's 12 seats in the Iraqi parliament are up for grabs and the results could send reverberations through Baghdad and beyond.
"The Kirkuk issue is hugely important to the international community because it has the biggest potential to break up Iraq , and they don't want that," said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East deputy program manager for the International Crisis Group. (To read an interview with Hiltermann, click here Searching for solutions, Asia Times Online, February 19)
"The UN scenarios are useful, and the US and UN plan to work on it once the elections are finished and they know who the new leaders are. I expect Kirkuk to get a lot of focus. Whether the Kurds and Arabs and Turkmen will embrace the solution is another matter."
But Rostam, for the moment, isn't worried about the world. A charismatic barrel of a man, Rostam's fierce reputation as a fighter is belied by an avuncular mien and hearty Kurdish humor. Cigarette in hand, he swept a burly arm at the Shorja slum where he grew up and explained that the people of Kirkuk have immediate needs that trump pipelines and geopolitical debates.
"Look around; this town is ruined. There are no services, the roads are terrible. People here don't even have electricity and water or fuel," said Rostam. "Iraq is a rich country, especially Kirkuk, but the ruling parties here are not representing the people. They money from the land and the oil is going right into their wallets."
Kurdistan's two main parties - the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) - have dominated Kirkuk's government and security apparatus since 2003. The two groups fought each other from 1994-1998 in a bloody civil war that killed as many as 5,000 Kurds, but in 2003 joined to form the Kurdistan Regional Government. The parties have controlled Kirkuk for the past seven years as the Kurdistani Alliance, but analysts say the partnership is unraveling and the entrance of Goran may be the final blow.
Arabs, Turkmen and Assyrian Christians claim widespread abuse from Kurdish authorities in Kirkuk. Allegations that Kurdish forces use murder, kidnapping and physical threats to intimidate minorities into leaving the area have skyrocketed since the start of the campaign season.
"We have no power in this city and our rights are violated. The Kurdish main parties control everything. Since the beginning of the election campaign we have had violence and problems every day. The Kurdish parties have armed militias; they are the cause of this violence," said Jamal Shan, head of the Turkmen National Party, a member of the Turkmen Front coalition in Kirkuk.
Critics claim the Kurdish parties have taken advantage of a policy allowing resettlement of Kurds kicked out of Kirkuk by Saddam during his "Arabization" campaign to control disputed areas. Minority leaders say the parties have flooded Kirkuk with tens of thousands of Kurds and subsidized the newcomers to control a promised referendum to determine if local people want to be part of Kurdistan.
The Kurds of Kirkuk, roughly 55% of the province's estimated 900,000 people, have their own complaints about the ruling parties. Most agree that corruption and cronyism are a fact of life and complain of unlivable public utilities and infrastructure. Lingering animosities between the Irbil-based KDP and the Sulaymaniyah-based PUK have also made for a dysfunctional government, experts and locals said.
"The ruling parties did not have a good policy in Kirkuk, especially in terms of providing services. They did not work as a team. There are still two Kurdish security agencies - one KDP and one PUK - and some state employees are supported by the PUK and others by the KDP," said Kurdish political analyst Ali Kurdistani.
"They did not treat other ethnic groups well, and they did not fulfill the promises they made to people over the last seven years. In short, they couldn't solve the Kirkuk crisis, the Kurds are unhappy, and now Goran can take advantage of all this dissatisfaction."
There has been no election in Kirkuk since 2005. Escalating street violence and political bickering excluded the province from local council elections in 2009. In the last vote, the Kurdish parties won 26 of the 41 provincial council seats behind a strong showing by the PUK which earned the right to appoint the city governor and head of the provincial council.
The PUK is now susceptible to the brunt of an angry public and an ambitious challenger in next month's vote. Some observers feel the political battle for Kirkuk could be the last stand of the PUK and its founder and general secretary, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
The PUK claims it isn't worried. Party spokesman Muhammad Osman said the people of Kirkuk would vote for the PUK because of the party's accomplishments in the area and its support during hard times.
Osman also pointed out that Talabani, who spent his childhood in Kirkuk, had arrived and would be spending the entire campaign in the city to raise votes. He estimated that the PUK would win six seats in parliament, and that Goran would be lucky to get one.
But Rostam wasn't having it. He estimated that 75% of veteran Peshmerga have joined Goran and those that haven't yet defected are only interested in keeping their paychecks. (Goran has been careful not to register itself as a political party so its followers can still belong to other parties. It is whispered that many Goran members still draw salaries from the PUK.)
"I was with the PUK for 34 years. The PUK broke its promise and sacrificed the people in the party in order to get rich. They said they would serve the people in Kirkuk but ended up oppressing them," said Rostam.
"I didn't spend all those years fighting for that."
By tapping into such popular discontent, the fledgling Goran movement is poised to become the spoiler in Kurdish politics. Its opposition to the two main parties is a direct threat to several years of lockstep Kurdish unity in Baghdad over such issues as oil revenues and disputed areas like Kirkuk.
Goran began as a splinter group within the PUK intent on reform of the party. It split with the PUK last year and stood in July elections for the Kurdish parliament on a platform of anti-corruption, fiscal transparency and the abolishment of political party militias. The new group won 25 seats in the 111-seat parliament, 23% of the overall vote, and embarrassed the PUK by winning in the older party's stronghold of Sulaymaniyah.
Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group notes, "It's an interesting thing that the top leaders of Goran are from the same mould as the leaders of the PUK and KDP in terms of being former Peshmerga leaders who lived in the mountains and fought Saddam during the 1980s. The founder [Nowshirwan Mustafa] was Talabani's number two and the PUK ideologue for all those years. He's a noted historian of the period and has written some serious histories of the national movement. Now, here he is, still surrounded by all these old Peshmerga from the mountains, but he has managed to appeal to younger people who were never in the mountains."
Kirkuk will now be the proving ground for Goran's ability to attract votes from other ethnic groups in its push for parliament seats. According to Kurdistani, Goran is the first Kurdish political group that is actively trying to attract people from different political backgrounds, ideologies and ethnic groups.
"I see main common points between the platforms of the [Goran] list and our list so this paves the way to form a coalition after the election and better serve the people of Kirkuk. Together we could show the Iraqi identity of the city, this is a vision the other Kurdish parties don't like," said Omar Jwad Aljbury, leader of the main Arab party in Kirkuk , the Iraqi Arab Coalition.
Even as some Goran candidates are predicting victory in Kirkuk, there is skepticism on the street about the untested movement facing off against older parties with well-established political networks. On Wednesday, Goran accused PUK security forces of opening fire on an opposition rally in Sulaimaniyah and wounding three supporters.
Still, if Goran wins parliament seats in Sulaimaniyah as expected and manages to pick up a few in Kirkuk, it could make for an intriguing political calculus in Baghdad.
"So much depends on post-election coalition-building. The number of seats they get overall may give them significant leverage," said Hiltermann. "This could play a key role in determining the presidency [a post held by Talabani]. The PUK and KDP want Talabani back in office. Nowshirwan is clearly opposed to that, but he may acquiesce if some key demands are met ... Clearly these other parties are worried that Goran will have some real power in Baghdad and ally with an Arab party."