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    Thursday, October 23, 2008

    A short sojourn in Kirkuk

    Kirkuk, Iraq – Wednesday, Oct. 22

    I briefly ended up in the violent city of Kirkuk today, completely by accident.

    When I arrived in Sulaymaniyah this week, I casually asked Miran, The Globe and Mail’s genial longtime driver/fixer in Northern Iraq, whether it would be possible to visit the city that has become the frontline in the struggle between Kurdish and Iraqi nationalists. No, he chuckled, “there are still kidnappings and murders all the time there.” It was the same answer he had given me on my last two visits to the country.

    Even as a relative calm has returned to other parts of Iraq, Kirkuk has gotten worse as simmering, decades-old tensions over whether the city is Kurdish, Turkoman or Arab (Saddam Hussein forcibly tried to make it the latter during his reign) bubble towards a full boil.

    So the journey today was supposed to be along the safe route. My translator and I boarded the bus to Irbil thinking that it would take the northern road, avoiding the potential trouble on the southern one. Straight out of the station, it went south to Kirkuk, a city I hadn’t visited since the summer of 2003.

    Despite some nervousness among the other passengers about having to travel with a trouble-magnet foreigner (there was a long conversation between the driver and passengers before it was agreed that I could come along for the drive), nothing happened. The city I saw was one that divided and scarred by years of fighting – an oil-rich place where electricity is still a luxury that most homes experience for only a few hours a day – but one that was functioning, at least on the Kurdish side that we drove through.

    The roads were packed with cars and the shops were open, including a few Christian-owned stores in the city centre that openly advertised the Turkish and German beers they carried in stock (liquor stores have long since disappeared in Baghdad and the Shia south, chased away by the militants).

    As we drove through his hometown, Abbas Khorsheed, a 33-year-old dentist with neatly combed-back hair and dark, intense eyes, told me that, economically, the post-Saddam era has been good to Kirkuk. Where he was once paid a state salary of 3,000 Iraqi dinars – a paltry $1.50 (U.S.) – a month as a dentist, he said he now makes upwards of $12,000 a year.

    He’s taken some of that money and is studying on the side to become an orthodontist. He advised me that braces would straighten my crooked bottom teeth.

    But while most Kurds are big fans of the United States and President George W. Bush for invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein, Mr. Khorsheed is less sure the sacrifices have been worth it. A pessimist, he sees either unending war, or unending American occupation in Iraq’s future. Kirkuk will remain a dangerous frontline city in whatever happens next, he predicted.

    “There is no agreement between the different groups, Arabs, Kurds, Turkomans, Christians. The situation has been like this for centuries. It will not get better,” he said, his quiet voice barely audible over the bus’s squealing engine. And while he’s thinking of leaving the city, he’s convinced the Americans will stay, no matter who wins next month’s U.S. presidential election.

    “Iraq will become like Japan. The Americans will stay forever, I think.”

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