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Seven bombs detonating in the space of 35 minutes sent up clouds of black smoke over the centre of Kirkuk earlier this week. The explosions in Arab and Turkoman districts killed 12 people and injured 39 but exactly who was behind them is unclear.
Kirkuk is a place where trust is in short supply. “I firmly predict there will be a rumor the Kurds were behind these bombings,” sighs Rafat Hamarash, the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Kurdish political party that largely controls the city. He said somebody wanted to stir up ethnic divisions between Kurd, Arab and Turkoman before they vote on the future of Kirkuk in nine months’ time. Mr Hamarash is probably right about the motives for the latest attacks. The city is approaching a critical moment in its long history. In December, there is a referendum, its timing agreed under the Iraqi constitution, when 1.8 million people of Kirkuk province will vote on whether or not to join the highly autonomous Kurdish region that is already almost a separate state. Kurds will vote in favor and probably win; Arabs and Turkomans will vote against and lose.
The Kirkuk issue is as notoriously divisive in Iraq as sovereignty over certain parts of Ireland used to be in British politics. Winston Churchill famously complained that, after all the political and military cataclysms of the First World War, the question of who should have “the dreary spires of Fermanagh and Tyrone”, remained as ferociously contested as before the war.
The control of Kirkuk divided Kurds from Arabs in Iraq under Saddam Hussein and continues to do so. The city is commonly called “a powder keg” though it has yet to explode. But that does not mean it will not happen and the referendum might just be the detonator for that explosion.
The Kurds believe they were a majority in the city until ethnically cleansed by Saddam and replaced by Arab settlers. As the regime crumbled in April 2003, the Kurds captured Kirkuk and its oilfields. They have no plans to give them up.
In negotiations in Baghdad with Arab political parties, they fought for and won the right to take back Kirkuk constitutionally.
First comes “normalization”, to be concluded by the end of this month, whereby Arab settlers leave and Kurds return. After that there will be a census and, finally, before the end of 2007, a referendum on becoming part of the Kurdistan regional government.
It now looks as if the referendum will have to be postponed. No Kurdish leader I spoke to thinks it can take place on time. “Normalization” has not really taken place, governments in Baghdad have persistently dragged their feet. The Shia religious parties may be allied to the Kurds in order to form a government but they fear political damage among their own followers if they are seen to be handing over Kirkuk to the Kurds.
For a city so coveted by Arabs and Kurds, Kirkuk is a dismal place, drearier than anything to be seen in Fermanagh or Tyrone. Its main street, with little booths selling shoddy goods, looks like an Afghan shanty town.
It has never benefited from its oil riches; Saddam deliberately neglected it. Rezgar Ali, the head of the local council, says Baghdad starves the city of money. At one point, he threatened to retaliate by stopping the supply of cement from local factories to Baghdad.
The Kurds may delay the referendum but not indefinitely. Kirkuk is too central to their national demands. Militarily they could overcome Arab resistance though they might have to cede certain areas. Whatever happens, the approach to the referendum is generating more violence.
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Taha Yassin Ramadan, the former vice-president of Iraq, was hanged early on the morning of Marcv 20 for his role in the killing of 148 Shia villagers from Dujail where there was an attempt to assassinate Saddam Hussein in 1982. He denied he was responsible and was at first sentenced to life imprisonment, though this was changed to a death sentence by the Court of Appeal.
He was a long-time henchman of Saddam, ruthlessly implementing his policies and showing little initiative of his own. He played a role in the coup in 1968 which brought the Baath party to power and was captured when hiding in the northern city of Mosul four months after the overthrow of Saddam in April 2003.
He was the third of Saddam’s top lieutenants to be executed and almost immediately there were signs that he would be considered a martyr by at least part of the Iraqi Sunni community. His body was wrapped in the Iraqi flag and was received as a martyr in the village of Awja, south of Tikrit, which is also the birthplace and burial place of Saddam himself. Shots were fired into the air and he was buried, as he had requested in his will, outside the hall containing Saddam’s tomb next to Saddam’s sons Uday and Qusay, his grandson Mustapha and his half-brother Barzan Tikriti as well as the judge Awad al-Bander.
Unlike previous executions–when Saddam was jeered and Barzan was decapitated during the hanging–the death of Ramadan produced no great scandal. But the executions of the leaders of the old regime, applauded by Kurds and Shia and generally regretted by Sunni, have served to deepen sectarian divisions.
The executions also burnish the patriotic credentials of the Baath party, whose brutality, corruption and incompetence is being forgotten by many Iraqis because of the violence and deprivation of the four years since the US and British invasion. Iraqis also suspect, with some reason, that the trials were orchestrated by the US. The trial of Ramadan in particular was criticised by human rights groups as unfair and the sentence as excessive.
Ramadan’s sister, Khadija Yassin Ramadan, said her brother spoke to relatives in Yemen by phone before his execution. She quoted him as saying: “It is [gratifying] enough for us to die as martyrs for the homeland. We did not bow our heads to the occupiers.” His sister added: “Our country is not implementing the law; it is carrying out vengeance. Despite our sadness we are proud because not every person can become a martyr.”
The capture, trial and execution of Saddam and other Baath party leaders has done nothing to quell the violence. Many Iraqis say they are too worried by trying to keep themselves and their families alive to care too much about the fate of the former leader. Nevertheless, the manner of the executions added to the feeling of bitterness among the Iraqi Sunni and in the Arab world in general.
Bassam al-Hassani, an adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said the execution went smoothly, although Ramadan appeared frightened and recited the two shahadahs–a declaration of faith repeated by Muslims–“There is no God but Allah and Mohamed is his Prophet”. The execution took place at 3.05am at a prison at an Iraqi army and police base, which had been the headquarters of Saddam’s military intelligence, in a predominantly Shia district in northern Baghdad. Ramadan had been in US custody but was handed over to the Iraqis about an hour before the hanging, according to Mr Hassani, who witnessed the hanging.
The number of dead bodies in Baghdad is creeping up again, with 30 being found on Monday. Since the so-called US surge started, the Shia militias have generally stopped their killings. But there are signs that Shia patience is wearing thin: bomb attacks by Sunni insurgent groups continue to kill Shia civilians.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.