February 20, 2005

In the Balance

By NIR ROSEN

There were two days left before election day, and Gen. Rostam Hamid Rahim, guerrilla war hero and a member of Iraqi Kurdistan's regional Parliament since 1992, was determined that every Kurd vote. Known as Mam (Uncle) Rostam, he told me he had joined the Kurdish nationalist militia, or peshmerga (''those who face death''), at age 15, in 1968. In 2003, he led the peshmerga into the northern city of Kirkuk -- the fourth-largest city in Iraq and its most ethnically mixed and contested -- following the American-led invasion of Iraq. Now 51, he still wore an olive shirt tucked into baggy olive pants, with a sash wrapped around his waist and a khaki vest: the traditional Kurdish garb. A black-and-white-checkered scarf encircled his head; he moved it back every so often to scratch his closely cropped hair.

On this Friday afternoon, Rostam had already visited a polling station around the corner from the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Kurdish party Rostam belonged to, led by Jalal Talabani. (Rostam is the union militia's field commander for Kirkuk.) His next stop was the Panja Ali refugee camp, next to the Shorja neighborhood where Rostam was born. Saddam Hussein destroyed the neighborhood with bulldozers in 1991 to punish rebellious Kurds and expel them north to the three provinces of Iraq (Erbil, Sulaimaniya and Dohuk) that Hussein had earlier cordoned off as Iraqi Kurdistan. Hussein's Kurdistan was intended to give the Kurds some autonomy -- and to provide a dumping ground for Kurds pushed out of the wealthier areas bordering it, above all the city of Kirkuk and the oil-rich province, also called Kirkuk, for which it serves as a capital. Hussein had even renamed the province Tamim, Arabic for ''nationalization.''

Now, in the wake of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, hundreds of Kurdish families had returned to Kirkuk, some living in tents, others in hastily constructed houses. In the camp, Rostam sat down along with other local Kurdish officials, including the deputy head of security for Kirkuk, who fought with Rostam against Hussein years before. Surrounded by a hundred men from the refugee camp and its nearby polling station, gesticulating for added emphasis with his broad thick shoulders and arms, Rostam repeated the same message he had been telling Kurds throughout the city whenever he campaigned: ''You have to vote, for the sake of our future.'' Rostam exhorted his audience to vote for the party representing the Kurds and, taking their victory for granted, asked that ''when the election results are announced, please don't shoot in the air.''

Members of Rostam's peshmerga entourage were dressed in Iraqi National Guard uniforms; some wore flak jackets that said ''Police.'' The convoy of pickup trucks soon left the camp and continued on to another Patriotic Union of Kurdistan office. Rostam marched into the office and took a seat behind a large desk. Tea was brought out, and minor officials greeted him with hugs and kisses.

He directed his gaze to the leader of the union's neighborhood committee. ''Tell everybody to be quiet and calm on election day, and tell people not to shoot in the air when the results come, because it will make other ethnic groups nervous,'' Rostam said. He was certain of the Kurds' triumph and told the men: ''We've done what we have to do. People should just go and vote.'' Before leaving, he added that signs giving people directions to the polling locations should be written in Kurdish, not Arabic.

In 1984, Rostam accompanied his party chief, Jalal Talabani, to Baghdad for negotiations with the government of Saddam Hussein. The status of Kirkuk proved to be a stumbling block. According to Rostam, Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz warned them: ''You will never get Kirkuk. You can only pass through it and weep for it.''

In campaigning, Rostam was, in a sense, having his revenge. ''Sixty-five to 70 percent of Kirkuk is Kurdish,'' Rostam assured me. ''So if there was a referendum to join Kurdistan, we could join easily.''

Rostam went on to say: ''Kirkuk is part of Kurdistan. When we win, we'll make Kirkuk the safest and richest city in the Middle East. We have struggled for more than 35 years for Kirkuk. Next year we'll have new elections in Kirkuk, and we'll return Kirkuk to Kurdistan.'' He meant the three-province Iraqi Kurdistan Hussein had created, but he also meant, beyond that, the ancestral lands of the Kurds, which stretch from Syria across much of eastern Turkey and into Iran, as well as a large portion of Iraq.

The liberation of the Iraqi Kurds, for which they have paid a heavy price, seemed within reach, and with the Iraqi election it looked as if an altogether new kind of Iraqi politics might be born at last. Yet, listening to Mam Rostam, it also seemed possible that this election might be the beginning of the end for a unified Iraq. Thanks to multiple accidents of history -- the uneasy presence of Sunni and Shiite Arab minorities; an embittered local ethnic group, the Turkmens; meddlesome neighboring countries with their own restive Kurdish populations; and, not least, control of about 40 percent of Iraq's known oil reserves -- the city of Kirkuk, population about 850,000, is where all the pieces of Iraqi politics come together, or where they may well fall apart.

Being situated near some of the country's main oil fields might have made Kirkuk a wealthy city, but that never came about. It is grim and dilapidated; its roads are crumbling; and traffic crawls around the roundabouts as boys sell bananas and boxes of perfumed tissue paper at intersections. Humvees with masked American gunners rumble by. Civilian drivers wait all day for gas as flames from sabotaged oil pipelines light the western horizon like monuments to Kirkuk's misfortune.

The winter rains in the days leading up to the election seemed to make the city dirtier, washing it with gray soot and mud: passing cars would leave a brown wake, and little waves crested over the sidewalks and onto the gates of shops and homes. Wires and cables crisscrossed above the city, trying to carry what little power was available a few hours a day. Inside stores and offices, Kirkukis of all backgrounds seemed to be watching Egyptian comedies when the electricity was on, grumbling about having to look up when customers appeared.

Kirkuk was historically a cosmopolitan center where Jews, Arab Sunnis, Christians and Shiites, Turkmens and Kurds lived and worked side by side and attended one another's religious celebrations. As nationalism spread throughout the region in the 20th century, replacing the relative tolerance that characterized the Ottoman Empire, the Jews fled, mainly to Israel, and Turkmen and Kurdish identities were forcibly suppressed.

Kurds, who are Muslims but not Arabs (or Persians), speak their own distinct language. (It is fast becoming the lingua franca in the north.) The origins of the Kurds are nebulous, but by the time of the Arab conquest in the seventh century, the word ''Kurd'' was used to describe people living in the region of the Zagros Mountains. The Kurds say they have been in the region for 3,000 years, surviving the empires of the Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Mongols, Byzantines and finally the Ottomans. By the 19th century, there was a Kurdish nationalist movement. In 1918, Kurds pinned their hopes on the 12th point of President Woodrow Wilson's famous 14-point plan for world peace: that the nationalities of the collapsing Ottoman Empire should be given autonomy. In the 1920's, however, the presence of oil in Kirkuk led the British to attach the area to Iraq, which Britain controlled at the time. Other Kurdish lands were divided among the larger countries of the region, and not long after the Kurds began rising up in rebellion.

Of course, if Kirkuk had indeed been given autonomy after the Ottoman breakup, it would not necessarily have led to Kurdish rule. Under the Ottomans, the city had been governed by a Turkmen (or Turkoman) nobility, and the majority of the city's population were Turkmens. They are said to be, in the prevalent view, descendants of migrant Turkic tribes who came to the region during the reign of the Seljuk Turks, which began in the 11th century.

Turkmens and Kurds alike were suppressed by the aggressive Arabism of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. Official ''Arabization'' began in the 1960's and accelerated significantly in 1975, when the Iraqi regime began forcibly removing tens of thousands of Kurds, Turkmens and Assyrian Christians from Kirkuk and bringing in Arabs to take their place. This Arabization was chiefly motivated by the government's wish to consolidate its grip on the oil-rich and fertile region -- and to pre-empt a gradual demographic takeover of the city by the Kurds. Under Arabization, as many as 250,000 non-Arabs, mostly Kurds, were expelled north into Iraqi Kurdistan. Their former land titles were declared invalid, and ownership was assumed by the government, which rented the land to Arabs.

In 1987, in retaliation for Kurdish rebellions during Iraq's long war with Iran, Hussein began the Anfal campaign. Human Rights Watch has estimated that up to 100,000 Kurds were killed and some 4,000 villages destroyed in what is widely considered a genocidal offensive. This hardly dampened Kurdish militancy, and when the Kurds saw an opening after the 1991 Persian Gulf war, they took it, rising against Hussein. The uprising was crushed; the United States and Britain, principally, responded by establishing a no-flight zone above the 36th parallel, and Kurds fled their lands and retreated to the protection of Western air power.

A Kurdish experiment with self-rule began in the no-flight zone. It was not entirely successful, because the two main parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, fought for control of the region. By 1996, the two sides had ironed out their differences, but this did little to settle the question of Kirkuk. There, the repression continued; during the 1990's, the Baghdad government expelled more than 100,000 people from Kirkuk. In 2001, the United Nations estimated that 805,505 displaced people were living over the border in Iraqi Kurdistan.

During the war to oust Saddam Hussein that began in March 2003, United States Special Forces soldiers fought alongside Kurdish guerrilla fighters. Together they descended on Kirkuk on April 10, and the vengeful Kurds -- with Mam Rostam as their commander -- looted many of the city's government buildings and shops, and convoys of Kurdish vehicles could be seen carrying the booty back to the north. Thousands of Arabs fled in advance of the Kurdish and American-led coalition forces; those who remained were subject to a campaign of intimidation. Many were warned to abandon their homes, which the Kurdish militias were seizing for themselves or awarding to the families of peshmerga casualties. The United States military eventually established a provincial council, painstakingly divided among Kurds, Christians, Arabs and Turkmens. Such a delicate arrangement was not likely to survive a free election.

In the days before the election, Kirkuk was festooned with posters and banners for the three main lists of candidates competing in Kirkuk: the Kurdish Kirkuk Brotherhood List, showing an oil well and the Kurdish national colors; the Iraqi Turkmen Front, signified by a light blue crescent and star; and the candle of the United Iraqi Alliance, the so-called Sistani list named for Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani of Najaf, who had endorsed it. All over town, Kurdish and Turkmen flags competed for attention, with the blue of the Turkmens standing out against the yellow, green and red of the Kurds. Only in the Arab neighborhoods were there no signs of politics -- no graffiti, no election posters or banners, no sign that any political event was taking place -- only mud. The leading Arab electoral list had decided to boycott the election.

In the Turkmen and Kurdish neighborhoods and in the center of town, along the mixed shops of the main market on Jumhuriya Street, a war of signs was taking place. For decades, except at the height of Arabization, the Turkmen and Kurdish populations each had roughly equal shares: enough to make them the city's dominant groups but not enough to make either one the clear winner. Each party's poster or banner had a national symbol or religious code to let the target audience know it was meant for them, followed by the appropriate number of the party on the ballot so that Kurds would recognize the Kurdish symbols and associate them with only one ballot number and Turkmens would do the same.

In one Turkmen neighborhood in the week before the election, I found three Kurds -- two wearing American-issue military uniforms and slinging Kalashnikovs, one wearing a business suit -- putting up posters for the Kirkuk Brotherhood List, all next to one another, above Turkmen signs. Another Kurdish soldier, with extra magazines for his weapon stuffed into his vest, angrily kicked a Turkmen banner onto the curb and then pushed it into the mud. Elsewhere I saw two Kurdish youths -- also in American-issue uniforms with flak jackets and Kalashnikovs -- putting up posters on the concrete barriers of the United States Army's civil-military operations center. In the Sari Kahiya neighborhood, which is mostly Turkmen, I was stuck behind a convoy of cars covered in Kurdish flags and banners. A loudspeaker on one blasted Kurdish music, while a man with a microphone in the lead car recited a litany of crimes the Kurds had suffered. The cars were full of armed men, hunched over with their rifle barrels just visible over the windows.

In the Taseen neighborhood, another predominantly Turkmen area, new all-Turkmen schools could be found with the Turkmen word for school, ''okul,'' revealing their ethnic identity. ''The burial of democracy in Iraq began with the I.E.C.I.,'' announced a banner hung on a little kiosk just across from the Turkmen sports center of the National Turkmen Movement, No. 177 on the national election ballot. The I.E.C.I. was the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, and the Turkmens charged it was locally dominated by the Kurds, who were in turn supported by the Americans. The Turkmens also claimed that the Kurds overcounted themselves (and, when necessary, the Arabs) and undercounted the Turkmens. Therefore, the election was, in the eyes of the Turkmens, doomed to fraudulence.

In the National Turkmen Movement's sports center, I passed by many armed guards on my way up to an office on the second floor. There, Munir al Kafiri, secretary of the movement, greeted me, as did Husam Edin, manager of the movement, who sat behind a desk. A dozen men in elegant suits had been in a meeting when I showed up uninvited. On the wall behind Husam, I recognized a faded picture of a gray wolf, baying at the moon. It was a symbol of Turkey's Gray Wolves, a paramilitary organization founded in Turkey in the 1960's. The Gray Wolves sought to establish a greater Turkey that would include Kirkuk and its oil fields. They battled leftists and opposed any recognition of the Kurds in Turkey.

''We belong to the Turkish Gray Wolves because we believe that anything taken by force can only be taken back by force,'' one of the men told me. It is their rights that the Turkmens want back, I was told, though their politics came to a sudden stop when they were asked to explain what those rights were. ''The Turks have lived here for 4,000 years,'' another of the men said, in a historical addition of about 3,000 years, and ''governments considered us relics of the Turkish occupation, all governments ignored our rights.'' Now, I was told, the interim Iraqi government ''has started taking sides.'' The men claimed that the independent electoral commission had registered an additional 108,000 internally displaced Kurds. ''This was a gift to the Kurds,'' one said.

The National Turkmen Movement had sent its own gift to the I.E.C.I. the day before. ''Yesterday we gave black roses to the I.E.C.I. to tell them they had died,'' one of the men said.

Husam Edin, the Turkmen movement's manager, explained: ''According to our documentation,'' which I was never shown, ''only 11,000 Kurdish families were expelled from Kirkuk, so if you multiply it by 5, it's only 55,000, still less than 108,000.'' The men denied that the returning Kurds had ever lived in Kirkuk. ''Saddam kicked them out because they had no Kirkuk residency and Saddam was trying to preserve the demography of Kirkuk,'' Husam Edin said.

It was a very curious argument, given that Hussein, through Arabization, had expelled thousands of Turkmens, too, in his attempt to alter the demography of Kirkuk. Now, paradoxically, the Turkmens were making common cause with Kirkuk's Arabs against the Kurds. This was, of course, an alliance of convenience.

The Iraqi Turkmen front is the parent party from which the National Turkmen Movement had split. I stopped by the offices of the front's innocuous-sounding humanitarian-aid society one afternoon in the Taseen neighborhood. Walking past gun-wielding guards whose uniforms bore an eagle patch that said ''Hayat Security Company,'' I entered an office and found several young men seated on a couch struggling to clean two Kalashnikovs and put them back together. Four more rifles were leaning against the wall in a corner. A poster of the founder of the modern Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, was on the wall above them, and on several shelves were various images of the Gray Wolves.

Omar Khattab, manager of the office, sat watching a Jackie Chan movie, a pistol on his desk. Like Saddam Hussein before him, Khattab, now 43, started out as a violent activist. As a teenager, he joined an underground nationalist movement. He was one of its assassins, shooting at Baathists. ''We succeeded in assassinating some of them, praise God,'' he said. He was jailed 11 times. In 1979 he was sentenced to be executed, but he bribed his way out of it by paying 1,000 dinars to change his birth certificate, making him a minor and ineligible for execution. In 1991, he said, the Kurds jailed him on charges of working with Turkish intelligence. ''Every political organization that wants to start begins with leaflets,'' he explained, ''then begins assassinations so its voice is heard.''

I asked Khattab why he had a small army in his office. Was he expecting violence during the election? ''God willing,'' he said, ''there will be violence. We are expecting it. You think we will keep silent about the 108,000 Kurds? Civil war has to happen, but we won't start it. Why do you think we were cleaning our weapons? Today there was a demonstration of Kurds -- all of them armed, a provocation -- and where were the Americans? How can you come here to teach us about democracy, and you don't give us freedom?''

He continued: ''We are ready for anything. Maybe after an hour, after a day, after a week, but civil war has to happen. The Kurds are four million, and we are three million. Our young men are ready to defend us.'' He did not expect Turkey to come to their rescue. ''Turkey will pursue its own interests, and if the Kurds give Turkey oil, then the Turks will support the Kurds,'' he said.

On election day in Kirkuk, two elections actually took place. The first was for a 275-seat National Assembly in Baghdad that would appoint a government and draft a constitution. The second was for the Kirkuk provincial government. Though initially confident of victory in Kirkuk, Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan leaders began to fear registration was not high enough to give them a sufficient margin to claim Kirkuk as decisively Kurdish. The two parties threatened to boycott the election if the 100,000 Kurds they claimed were Kirkuki refugees were not allowed to vote in Kirkuk. In a compromise that infuriated the Arabs and Turkmens of Kirkuk, the national election commission allowed about 60,000 new voters onto the Kirkuk rolls, most of them Kurds.

The division of the vote along ethnic or religious lines marked the election not only in Kirkuk but nationwide. Because the electoral ''lists'' had to compete on a national basis, they could not appeal to particular local needs or issues. This meant that the political appeal of any particular list almost had to be much less than the sum of its candidates; in effect, the national lists became reflections of ethnicity or religious belief. During the campaign, this had the result of solidifying the connection between religion or ethnicity and political power. And the problems of Kirkuk became less and less distinguishable from the problems of Iraq as a whole.

Across town from the Turkmen neighborhood of Taseen was Uruba, or ''Arabdom,'' constructed by Saddam Hussein to house Arabs he imported into Kirkuk. The muddy lots and rocky paths between homes were full of children playing and garbage strewn about, as goats and herds of sheep picked through the refuse for scraps. Uruba was nicknamed Resistance City by American soldiers, who rarely ventured in. Women in purple and green robes with head scarves chatted or mopped the spaces in front of their homes. Men lolled about silently, staring at our car as it struggled to traverse the pitted and broken streets: a new vehicle with new faces inside.

A trickle of Sunni men, alone or in couples, slowly made their way to the Al Tawhid Mosque, whose white walls and green towers were surrounded by mud and sewage. Donkeys stood outside, while before the mosque's gate children played with birds they had caught, holding their feet and attacking one another with the screeching birds spreading their wings.

I approached the mosque's guardians and was allowed to enter. A hundred men stood barefoot in rows on carpets in the outer courtyard because the interior of the mosque was full. Sheik Mahmud Husein Ahmad al-Ubeidi began his khutba -- the Friday sermon -- and loudspeakers outside echoed his shrill fury against the walls of the neighborhood. As is the tradition, Mahmud began by retelling stories of the early Muslim leaders and spoke of how they worked heroically to help their flock. He contrasted them with today's leaders and ended with a warning against the election. ''The occupier wants us to participate in these elections,'' he said, ''but we know they are a fraud.'' After prayers were over, I stood in line with other well-wishers to greet the sheik, and he invited me for lunch; we drove off to his nearby home. In his dark guest room, paint peeled off the walls against which some 20 boys and old men in dishdasha robes were leaning. Sheik Mahmud invited me to sit with him and others on thin mattresses placed on the floor.

''We fear Iraq will have a sectarian war,'' the sheik began to tell me, only to be interrupted by his 3-year-old son running to embrace his father. I was told the boy's name was Osama. ''I named him after Osama bin Laden,'' the sheik said, smiling. ''Bin Laden is a good man.''

Mahmud has led the neighborhood mosque for two years, and a steady stream of men entered his home to congratulate him upon his return from his first hajj. When a man entered, the seated men all stood up -- despite the newcomer's protests -- and he shook each man's hand, embracing and kissing and exchanging wishes of peace and God's blessings. Then the conversation would resume until the next interruption, which included lunch, a large tin bowl of rice with pieces of boiled meat on top.

''All the Sunni Arab leaders have banned the elections,'' the sheik now said, adding that ''we don't have faith in the elections -- these are secular parties.''

Mahmud acknowledged that he was a member of the Sunni Council of Islamic Scholars, a radical coalition of sheiks in Iraq who support the insurgency and oppose both the occupation and the election. Though the scholars' council did not have an office in Kirkuk, as it did in most Arab Sunni areas of the country, it was represented by the sheik, who relayed its orders from Baghdad to Kirkuk's Sunnis. ''The council said we should not participate in the elections,'' he said. ''We should have the elections after the occupation is over, otherwise the Americans will install whomever they want and the elections will fail.'' He repeated propaganda heard in Sunni areas from Falluja to Mosul: ''We heard that 700,000 Iranians were brought into the south, and here foreign Kurds were brought in.'' Mahmud and his seated supporters did not think Sunnis would be weakened by their intended boycott. ''If we support the elections, we have to accept the results,'' he said. ''But if we reject them, we stay strong.''

The men in Mahmud's room feared both the Kurds and the Americans, who had altered the balance of power. The sheik explained that ''the Americans arrested many of our youth, so did the Kurds. The Kurds have hated Arabs for a long time. They see an Arab and say he is Saddam Hussein.'' An older sheik, who was visiting, cut in: ''They are trying to provoke us and attack Arabs in the market, beating them up. The Americans support the Kurds.'' He and others finishing their lunch denied that many Kurds had been expelled by Hussein. ''The government only expelled 3,000 Kurds,'' said one of the men. Another, a round man seated beside the sheik, denied living in Kurdish homes. ''We bought our homes,'' he said. ''If Arabs stole the homes of Kurds, then they deserve to get them back, but we took government land.'' The older sheik interjected again: ''They want to take Kirkuk. We are sitting here waiting. If anything happens we will react.''


When Hussein sought to Arabize Kirkuk, he used Shiite Arabs as well as Sunnis. As with Turkmens and Arabs, Sunni and Shiite Iraqi Arabs, at odds elsewhere in the country, have found common cause in Kirkuk against the Kurds. For many Shiites, of course, particularly those inspired by the young cleric Moktada al-Sadr and the exploits of his Mahdi army, there is also common cause to be found in opposing the American-led occupation and all its works.

At another mosque in Kirkuk -- a Shiite huseiniya -- I heard a different sermon given. The modest building was obscured by the taller homes in the area, and inside its courtyard men were washing their feet, arms and faces in the ritual ablutions before prayer. The inner walls were lined with posters featuring a who's who of radical Shiism: Ayatollah Khomeini, Moktada al-Sadr and his revered martyred uncle, Muhammad Bakr al-Sadr, the father of political Shiism in Iraq. One poster, showing Moktada al-Sadr beside a masked man wielding a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, announced, ''The Mahdi army supports Muslims and protects the religious sites for Iraqis.'' Another declared that al-Sadr was on the battlefield against the Americans; yet another warned the Americans, ''Oh, infidels, I don't worship what you worship''; and still another said of those infidels, ''Fight these people by day and by night, secretly and openly, and I call on you to attack them before they attack you.''

Beneath the posters, on a bulletin board, al-Sadr's latest announcements were posted. One from December declared that al-Sadr's movement was boycotting the election, though it did not say that he was quietly fielding candidates at the same time.

The men in the mosque gathered on the green carpet beneath plastic chandeliers and spoke to one another in a murmur. They spoke in the southern Iraqi Shiite dialect; they were among the Arabs from southern Iraq that Hussein had encouraged (or forced) to migrate to Kirkuk to replace expelled Kurds.

The prayer was interspersed with the traditional and ubiquitous Shiite chant -- ''Our god prays for Muhammad and the family of Muhammad'' -- but appended to it was a remarkable innovation that supporters of al-Sadr had added, changing accepted Shiite practice. The chant requested that God speed the return of the Mahdi, or Shiite messiah, damn his enemies and make his son al-Sadr victorious. Then the congregants shouted: ''Oh, Allah! Oh, Ali! Oh, Mahdi,'' and placed their hands on their bowed heads, finishing in a more subdued tone, ''Make us victorious.''

The huseiniya's imam, Mahmud, stood up. He wore a white turban that made his narrow face look even thinner. Mahmud began with stories about the heroes of early Islam and, uncharacteristically for a Shiite, praised the early Sunni leaders and commended their friendship with the prophet. The sheik then spoke about the importance of choice and the responsibility that comes with it. ''It's important to apply your freedom,'' he said. He called upon his audience to choose the best marja, or religious source, as high-ranking Shiite clerics are called. After prayers, posters of Moktada al-Sadr and copies of his publication, Al Hawza, were put on sale.

Of course, not all Shiites were hostile to the election. The United Iraqi Alliance -- the Shiite ''list'' endorsed by Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani -- also had a presence in Kirkuk. Posters of Sistani and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri) and a major figure in the United Iraqi Alliance, covered Sciri's extremely humble headquarters. Three middle-aged men were sleeping in a room there when I arrived. They hobbled out in a daze. Their Arabic was poor; they were all Shiite Turkmens who spent nearly two decades in Iranian exile with Sciri and its militia, the Badr Brigade. They fought in the south and in northern Iraq. I asked them who their candidates were in Kirkuk. ''There are candidates here for the list,'' one of them said, ''but I don't have their names or phone numbers here.'' He rummaged through the desk until he found the list of their 17 provincial candidates.

They sent me to a mosque sympathetic to their cause. The walls were covered with posters showing mass graves and depicting Saddam Hussein's soldiers attacking Najaf. Inside, Seyid Sadiq al-Batat spoke to a room filled with 150 men and, sequestered in the front, 50 women. He spoke about Islam for 90 minutes and finally got to the election. ''Elections are an important day for the followers of Ali,'' he said, referring to the Shiites, ''and we say to the occupier, No to occupation for a day, for a week, for a year. Sistani refused the American request to postpone the elections. People think that the elections are a gift from the occupier. But they are a trick to let them stay here to use our oil and natural resources. They were refusing elections, but we forced them. We won't have a secular constitution. We'll have an Islamic constitution. The majority in this country is Shiite. Anybody who wants to liberate Iraq should vote for this list.''


The night before the election, in the deserted headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, I found Muhammad Kamal Salih, deputy director of the party in Kirkuk. Only the flag of Kurdistan was on his desk. Above him were posters of Mustafa and Massoud Barzani -- the patriarch of Kurdish resistance and his son. Salih's cellphone rang constantly with a Kurdish national song. No. 2 on the Kirkuk slate, he was guaranteed a position after the election. He did not seem particularly thrilled about this. Maybe it was not in his nature.

''We hope to have more Kurds on the council after the elections, more than half,'' he said. ''Kurds are 47 or 48 percent of Kirkuk. It's low because the imported Arabs have not yet been returned to the south.'' He was confident that the unwanted Arabs would leave. ''They came for their personal interest, so if you offer them incentives, they will go,'' he said. ''About 300,000 Arabs should go. About 50,000 have already left Kirkuk. Ninety percent of them are only waiting to receive incentives to leave. They will be given jobs, transportation, land, homes in the south.'' He expected Kirkuk's oil revenues to pay for their transfer. Salih's own responsibility was not oil but education, in regard to which he complained of facing logistical problems turning Arab schools into Kurdish ones.

Iwent to spend election eve with Mam Rostam at his home in the formerly all-Arab Qadisiya neighborhood, which is the front line of Kurdish-Arab tension. His newly confiscated home had belonged to Shiite Arabs. They were gone now, and Rostam had renovated.

That night I told Rostam about the Friday prayer in the Tawhid Mosque and how the imam urged everyone not to vote. Rostam laughed and slapped his thighs. ''This is great for us!'' he said. He laughed when I told him how I had cautioned the sheik that Sunnis would lose out if they did not vote. ''No, you should have told them: 'You're right, don't vote. It's for the infidels!'''

Rostam went into the kitchen and emerged with bottles of whiskey, ouzo and beer. Soft drinks were not an option. His guests began arriving. Gen. Salar Ahmad Faqi, the rotund and eternally tired chief of the traffic police, settled into a chair, removing his Israeli automatic pistol, which he said was a special gift from a benefactor he refused to name. The chief of security for this neighborhood, a handsome man, freshly shaved and with a permanent smile, refused to give his name or have his picture taken. Asked about reports that Israeli intelligence agents were training the Kurds, he said Iraqi Jews have the right to return to Kurdistan.

''Better to have Israelis than Arabs!'' Rostam shouted. ''We think that the Kurds and Israel are the best allies the Americans have in the Middle East.'' There was a radio on, tuned to a Kurdish station, and when reports of threats to Kurds were broadcast, Rostam, well into his ouzo, began complaining. ''Muslims are bad,'' he said. ''Islam is dictatorial. Look at Europe: you can see real democracy; you can see a mosque, a church and nightclub all together.'' His friend Adil, deputy chief of security for Kirkuk, who wore a black suit, black shirt and red tie, added, ''I am an example of democracy. I pray, then I drink.''

''The [Saddam] regime killed 182,000 people in the Anfal campaign and destroyed more than 5,000 villages,'' Rostam declared, ''and no Muslim cleric said anything.'' Voicing a frequent Kurdish refrain, he mourned the loss of the Kurds' pre-Islamic religion. ''Our original religion was Yazidi, and they came by the sword to make us Muslims,'' he said. Then he added, ''We should replace mosques with discotheques.''

Shy young peshmerga in green fatigues and plastic slippers brought in courses of salad, rice and meat as Rostam's well-fed comrades ate and listened. Their cellphones rang often, each one with a different pop melody. Atta, a local police commander, had a phone that trilled ''Jingle Bells.'' That night he took me with his police patrol into an Arab district, where his men blared their sirens and fired their heavy machine gun into the air.


Mam Rostam awoke on election day and switched on the Kurdish satellite channel, where music videos from Sulaimaniya were playing. ''Isn't this better than praying at a mosque?'' he asked. It was a theme with him.

The school two houses down from his served as a voting center. Men and women lined up in the hundreds on opposite sides of the school, squeezed between walls and barbed wire. The sounds of heavy gunfire cut through the chatter. People came early, starting at 7 when the center opened, as Black Hawk helicopters circled above. Many of the women wore shiny new clothes, their finest, full of color and glitter. People came holding sample ballots and their registration cards. A sign at the entrance said, ''Vote for who you want and only for who you want.'' The school was decorated with Kurdish colors. Though it was early in the morning, the feeling was of great excitement. People moved quickly and in remarkable order. Men and women were eager to vote, smiling as they walked out of booths, seemingly disappointed that it was over so soon.

Rostam's convoy set out for his childhood neighborhood, Shorja, where voting was held at a school. He was accompanied by two dozen peshmerga members and his personal cameraman. The young cameraman leapt off the back of the pickup truck from where he had been filming Rostam's lead car and never stopped filming, sprinting around everybody in a panic, pressing his video camera close to Rostam's face. Thousands of people were on the street. Rostam circumvented the entire line and its security procedures and entered with his cameraman and gunmen. Other voters were made to wait as he put on his reading glasses and made a show of studying the ballot. He was shown how to fold it, and the staff was very impressed, or made it seem so. Outside the mood was celebratory; some men beat drums, singing and dancing, while others danced with the flag of Kurdistan. They appeared to be celebrating a Kurdish victory much more than an Iraqi one.

Rostam's convoy continued to another neighborhood. As a large crowd encircled him, he announced: ''Today is a historic day. Today our geography, history and blood will bear fruit.'' Women approached him to shake his hand. One old woman hugged him. She had been his nanny as a child. ''Do you still want to wash me in a basin?'' Rostam roared. Everybody laughed. News arrived of a mortar shell hitting the Kirkuk stadium, which Rostam visited two days earlier to greet the 2,000 Kurdish refugees who had set up a shantytown there. A teenager had been killed by the mortar round. Rostam drove to the hospital to soothe the stricken family and friends, whose clothes were stained with the victim's blood. Soon Rostam continued on to the Iskan neighborhood. Thousands danced in the streets and greeted Rostam with embraces. As he spoke to them, the men laughed and clapped. ''Did everybody here vote?'' he demanded.

Once you left the Kurdish neighborhoods, the dancing stopped. Taseen was quiet, though not as quiet as the city's Arab slums, which seemed almost deserted until Iraqi policemen began firing on our car. After surrounding the car, dragging us out and interrogating us at gunpoint, they decided we really were journalists rather than terrorists, and we were able to enter a girls' school that was serving as an election site. There were six policemen on the roof. Occasionally one or two people strolled in to vote. Some of the election workers wore masks to avoid reprisals as collaborators.

Back in the Kurdish Shorja neighborhood at 2 that afternoon, we found the festivities unabated. Hundreds of people were still lined up to vote, while around them people danced and sang. Rostam remained in a celebratory mood. ''The ballot boxes are empty in Baghdad!'' he said. ''It means we are going to win!''


But what had the Kurds won? At the very least, they seemed ready to begin another round of forced deportations. Kirkuk's Kurdish assistant governor for resettlement and compensation, Hasib Rozbayani, told me the day before -- after waving me into his house with a pistol, a house that had been taken from an Arab -- that he hoped to expel 300,000 Arabs and welcome the return of the same number of Kurds. Of the Arabs, he said: ''They should prefer to live in peace and not be in conflict every day. Their presence leads to conflict.''

There is little reason, however, to think that their absence will lead to peace. When Kurdish voters left the polling places, they were often directed to tents to vote once more, this time in an informal referendum on whether they wanted to live in an independent Kurdistan or in Iraq. According to the referendum's organizers, the vote went 98.76 percent for independence.

However primitive this straw poll was, the prospect of Kurds not resting until they have created a state from northern Iraq -- a state that would include Kirkuk -- is very real. For now, the two leading Kurdish parties remain officially opposed to an independence referendum. But within days of the vote, Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, was saying of independence: ''When the right time comes it will become a reality. Self-determination is the natural right of our people.'' Peter Galbraith, a former American diplomat who had watched the breakup of Yugoslavia and was monitoring the voting in Kurdistan, concluded that the breakup of Iraq was inevitable, too, because the Kurds had finally got close to independence and were in no mood to stop now. One of the Kurds' chief representatives in Baghdad, Faraj al-Haideri, began calling for a referendum in the summer on whether Kirkuk should merge with the three neighboring Kurdish autonomous provinces.


Two weeks after the election, I phoned Mam Rostam, and he seemed to be in a statesmanlike mood. Preliminary national results showed the Kurds with an outsize share, thanks to Sunni Arab nonparticipation. Locally, Rostam considered the election a success, ''despite the deep aversion the Turkmen and the Sunni Arabs had for democracy and the will of the people.'' He predicted that Kirkuk's provincial council, with a fresh Kurdish majority, would ''try to remain part of Iraq.'' He said, however, that ''once they realize that the Iraqi government does not help them, or, let's say, does not do enough to help Kirkuk stand on its feet, they will ask to join Kurdistan and enjoy the privileges the Kurds enjoy at the moment.''

Once that happened, Rostam, too, foresaw independence. ''Kurdistan is not yet an independent state,'' he told me, ''but why should we not have the right to have an independent state of our own like all the other small countries?''

Rostam said he was being considered for the post of ''chief commander of the oil fields of Kirkuk.'' It appears that Kirkuk has become a place where an oil field has to have a ''commander'' and where that commander thinks of himself not as an Iraqi, but as a Kurd.

Nir Rosen has reported from Iraq and Afghanistan for The New Republic, The New Yorker and other publications. This is his first article for The Times Magazine. He is working on a book about contemporary Iraq.