By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 20, 2008; A01
KIRKUK, Iraq — Darawan Salahadin, dressed in a black shirt and blue jeans, strolled out of his home in the Kurdish part of his ethnically fragmented neighborhood, passing concrete barriers and a checkpoint guarded by a Kurdish fighter. He entered the Arab section and walked swiftly to his tan, flat-roofed school.
In the classrooms were only Kurdish students. The Arabs would arrive as Kurds left, and then the Turkmen students would get their turn. The school has three names, one in each community’s language, and three sets of teachers and principals.
“I have no Arab and Turkmen friends. I have only Kurdish friends,” said Salahadin, a slim 17-year-old with thick, gelled black hair. “I can’t speak Arabic or Turkmen. So I don’t know them.”
The school’s divisions illustrate the tensions rippling through this neighborhood and all of Kirkuk, ground zero of Iraq’s most vexing conflict over land, oil and identity. The battle over who will rule Kirkuk is a significant test of whether the Iraqi government can solve the country’s internal disputes as the U.S. military draws down.
In contrast to security improvements elsewhere in the country, Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen residents of Kirkuk remain targets of political violence as their leaders vie for control of what they see as their ancestral lands. Last week, at least 57 people died in a suicide bombing on the outskirts of the city, the deadliest assault in Iraq in six months.
“Kirkuk could be the capstone in the house of freedom, or it can be the cheap thread that when you pull out unravels the entire suit,” said Lt. Col. David Snodgrass, deputy commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, which oversees the city.
Kurdish political parties, citing historical claims to the city, want to expand their autonomous region in northern Iraq to include it. Iraq’s predominantly Arab central government opposes Kurdish control over Kirkuk, whose oil fields produce 40 percent of Iraq’s output, as does Kirkuk’s minority Turkmen community and its backers in Turkey.
Iraqi leaders and the United Nations are struggling to reach at least a temporary solution to the question of who should control the city. At a time when the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Kurdish leaders are increasingly at odds over the disposition of oil revenue and other issues, Kurdish parties have deployed forces in the city and the surrounding area in what they say is an attempt to protect Kurdish civilians from attack.
Even the name of Salahadin’s neighborhood is contested. Arab and Turkmen residents call it Hay al-Wasiti, as it was known before the 2003 U.S-led invasion of Iraq. The Kurds have renamed it Nowruz, after the Kurdish New Year.