Shiite Militias Move Into Oil-Rich Kirkuk, Even as Kurds Dig In

By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 25, 2006

KIRKUK, Iraq -- Hundreds of Shiite Muslim militiamen have deployed in recent weeks to this restive city -- widely considered the most likely flash point for an Iraqi civil war -- vowing to fight any attempt to shift control over Kirkuk to the Kurdish-governed north, according to U.S. commanders and diplomats, local police and politicians.

Until recently, the presence of the militias here was minimal. U.S. officials have called the Shiite armed groups the deadliest threat to security in much of the country. They have been blamed for hundreds of killings during mounting sectarian violence in central and southern Iraq since the bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in February.

The Mahdi Army, led by firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, has sent at least two companies, each with about 120 fighters, according to Thomas Wise, political counselor for the U.S. Embassy's Kirkuk regional office, which has been tracking militia activity. The Badr Organization, the armed wing of Iraq's largest Shiite political party, has also boosted its presence and opened several offices across the region, military officers here said.

Although still in its early stages, the militia buildup "is something that definitely concerns us, and something that we are watching very carefully," said Col. David R. Gray, 48, of Herscher, Ill., commander of the 101st Airborne's 1st Brigade Combat Team, based in Kirkuk. "So far they haven't been that violent, but does it add to the tension, putting them into this maelstrom? Absolutely."

The fate of oil-rich Kirkuk -- Iraq's third-largest city with about a million residents and sizable ethnic Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen communities -- has been a pivotal and divisive issue since long before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Iraq's constitution, endorsed in nationwide balloting in October, calls for a referendum on the future of the region by the end of 2007, but many key details are in dispute, such as who will be permitted to vote.

Kurdish leaders speak openly of their intention to use force if necessary to gain control of the city, which they consider the historical capital of a vast Kurdish nation also extending into Iran and Turkey. During the rule of President Saddam Hussein, Arabs brought in from elsewhere in Iraq displaced thousands of Kurds. As many as 300,000 Kurds who were pushed out have returned to the area, according to U.S. estimates, establishing vast settlements on the outskirts of the city and making them its largest ethnic community. Kurds also occupy most of the top provincial political and security jobs.

Many Iraqi Arabs, both Sunni and Shiite, are adamantly opposed to relinquishing Kirkuk, among them Sadr and his political followers.

Operating within and alongside Iraq's police and army, Shiite militias have grown politically more powerful and boosted their membership, despite being outlawed under Iraq's new constitution. U.S. officials have called on the Shiite-led government, whose leading parties are tied to Badr and the Mahdi Army, to rein them in, but few if any such steps have been taken.

Gray said the militias used the bombing of the Askariya shrine in Samarra, north of Baghdad, as a pretext for expanding into Kirkuk, ostensibly to protect their mosques and people. Shiite residents of Kirkuk, most of whose families were transferred here by Hussein decades ago, are believed to make up less than 5 percent of the local population.

For the most part, however, the militias have maintained a low profile, U.S. military officials said. Shortly after they arrived, an Iraqi police unit told them to stow their guns and promised that the mosques would be protected. The militias complied. They have held at least three large but peaceful street demonstrations, including two by Badr that attracted more than 2,000 people. Wise said Badr is less troubled by the prospect of Kurdish control of Kirkuk.

"We know they are here, but they are not patrolling in the streets publicly, not yet," said Brig. Gen. Sherko Shakir, the provincial police chief.

A few hundred Shiite militiamen would be no match for the tens of thousands of Kurdish fighters either serving in Iraqi army units in Kirkuk or stationed outside the city in Kurdish-controlled provinces.

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