KIRKUK, Iraq -- Back in Idaho, Lt. Col. Anthony Wickham works as the Army National Guard liaison to the state government. His primary responsibility is to develop disaster plans for emergencies such as fires, blizzards and floods.
Here in Iraq, however, Wickham, 45, of Boise, is a military liaison of a different sort. His primary responsibility is to mediate among the various ethnic factions battling for control of Kirkuk. He is working to help prevent the ultimate man-made disaster: civil war.
Lt. Col. Anthony Wickham, right, liaison to the Kirkuk provincial government, speaks with Mohammad Khalid Juboori, an Arab councilman. "If the Americans leave, I am 100 percent sure there will be a fight," Juboori says.
(Steve Fainaru -- The Washington Post)
The demands are dauntingly complex. On a recent Sunday, two Sunni Arabs approached Wickham in a corridor at Kirkuk's provincial hall. They asked him to bring the weight of the U.S. military to bear upon the Kurdish politicians who now dominate the government and refuse to share power.
"I'm doing what I can," Wickham responded, his expression suggesting he had heard the request a thousand times. "I'm doing what I'm allowed to do."
How Wickham and his deputy, Capt. Darren Ream, 34, an environmental lawyer for the state of Texas, ended up performing high-stakes diplomacy is a function of Iraq's peculiar nascent democracy, a process unfolding in the middle of a bloody and protracted guerrilla war.
Continuing violence has kept away professional diplomats and nongovernmental organizations, leaving their tasks to the U.S. military. With U.S. forces spread thin throughout Iraq, the military has assigned operational responsibility for Kirkuk and the surrounding region to the 42nd Infantry Division, the first National Guard division to be deployed in combat since the Korean War.
Kirkuk, a northern city of 850,000, sits atop 10 percent of Iraq's oil reserves but is economically depressed. Kurds are 35 percent to 40 percent of the population but hold 63 percent of the seats on the provincial council after most Arabs boycotted the Jan. 30 elections. The six Arabs and nine ethnic Turkmens who hold seats have refused to attend meetings, arguing that the Kurds are unwilling to share power as they push to make Kirkuk part of an autonomous Kurdistan.
"There is a sense of being a cork floating on the ocean, but I think in the end we are equipped. I think it can be done," Ream said. "And I think a National Guard unit is better able to deal with a situation like this. We have civilian skills, and we have a lot more life experience than a typical soldier has. That's what you need in a situation like this."
With the U.S. military preparing to transfer counterinsurgency operations to Iraqi security forces, the stakes in Kirkuk are lost on no one. Mohammad Khalid Juboori, an Arab councilman, predicted, "If the situation stays like this and the Kurds continue to be stubborn and want to control everything, and if the Americans leave, I am 100 percent sure there will be a fight."
Wickham called civil war "the worst-case scenario," adding: "The vast majority of the council members are trying to work toward a common solution. They're risking their lives doing it. That's the little light I see out there. That's the little flame I've got to keep feeding."
Ream called Kirkuk "a tinderbox" and said civil war, while currently unlikely, was "a real possibility. Nobody wants it. But I think there may come a point when emotions take over and people stop thinking rationally. It could spiral."
If the Americans withdrew from Kirkuk, Ream said, "this place would deteriorate quickly, I'm afraid."
Several recent incidents have driven up tensions. One afternoon in mid-January, four Kurds were dragged into the street in Hawija, an Arab city about 30 miles southwest of Kirkuk, and shot to death. The incident triggered an exodus of Kurds and led to calls for the pesh merga, their militia, to enter Hawija. But local Kurd and Arab leaders, encouraged by the U.S. military, held a joint news conference that seemed to calm the situation.
Then, last month, an Iraqi police officer went to pick up a soda can and it exploded, killing him. The next day, during his funeral procession, another bomb killed four officers. The police, mostly pesh merga, arrested several vegetable vendors near the scene.