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."
Pivotal and divisive issue
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.
In a meeting here last week, Sadr's representative in the city, Abdul Karim Khalifa, told U.S. officials that more armed loyalists were on the way and that as many as 7,000 to 10,000 Shiite residents were prepared to fight alongside the Mahdi Army if called upon. Legions more Shiite militiamen would push north from Baghdad's Sadr City slum, he said, according to Wise.
"His message was essentially that any idea of Kirkuk going to the Kurds will mean a fight," Wise said. "He said that their policy here was different from in other places, that they are not going to attack coalition forces because their only enemy here is the Kurds."
U.S. officials said the Shiite armed groups had not disrupted security here, but local police and government officials, many of them Kurds, have accused them of a wave of crimes.
"We fear the expansion of the role of Shiite armed men in Kirkuk," said Yadgar Abdullah, commander of the police emergency operations center in Kirkuk and an official with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which administers the Kurds' decades-old militia, the pesh merga . He said the number of kidnappings for ransom in Kirkuk has surged since the militias arrival.
Another Kurdish security official, who spoke on condition he not be named, said Shiite militias are thought to have conducted at least five killings of Kurds in Kirkuk and the surrounding area.
"We are dealing with anybody that carries weapons and stands against the Iraqi government to disturb security," Abdullah said. "They will be considered terrorists that must be fought and disarmed."
In a recent interview, Khalifa, the Sadr representative, said the Mahdi Army -- which battled U.S. troops across southern and central Iraq in 2004 -- was responding to a power play by Kurdish politicians, whom he accused of plotting "to marginalize us in the political process and trying to force the Shiite Arabs out" by seizing control of Kirkuk.
New challenge for U.S. troops
Despite intense competition among Iraqi factions for control of the city, U.S. forces here have been largely successful at limiting violence. But the influx of Shiite militias poses a new challenge for American troops, who have long considered the primary threat to be the Sunni Arab-led insurgency.
Last week about two dozen U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi SWAT team launched a midnight raid in search of 12 men accused of planting a deadly roadside bomb last month. They crammed into a dozen Humvees and, with helicopters buzzing overhead, swarmed a quiet neighborhood in central Kirkuk, kicking down doors and rummaging through a half-dozen houses.
The six suspects they detained, whose names were provided by local informants, were believed to be members of the Mahdi Army, accused by U.S. and British forces of recent attacks on coalition troops in Baghdad and several southern cities. Photographs of Sadr were plastered on virtually every wall of every raided home.
"I had never heard of these Mahdi guys being up here until tonight," said Lt. John Reynolds, 23, of Ararat, Va., a platoon leader, as he rifled a cabinet full of Shiite prayer flags, posters depicting Imam Ali, and portraits of the youthful Sadr and his white-bearded father.
In a courtyard outside, a woman in a head scarf clutched three weeping children to her chest. Two men arrested inside sat blindfolded and bound in plastic handcuffs, one a soldier in the Iraqi army, the other a local policeman.
"Just what we need in a place like this," Reynolds said, "something new to worry about."
Kurds boost ranks
In response to the Shiite buildup, the Kurdish pesh merga militia has boosted its already substantial presence in Kirkuk and in the city of Tuz, where nearly 100 Kurdish gunmen arrived in recent weeks, Wise, the State Department representative, and U.S. commanders said.
The Kurds have also increased to about 15,000 the number of private security workers guarding offices and government buildings in the Kirkuk region, according to a Western official here, who said they could be called upon to fight if ethnic conflict escalated.
Tuz, a city of about 200,000 south of Kirkuk, was considered so peaceful in January that U.S. forces transferred out almost all their soldiers, with about 40 remaining as advisers to the Iraqi troops remaining behind.
"Now you are seeing lots of attempts by the militias to intimidate Iraqi soldiers there," said Lt. Col. Bob Benjamin, 42, of Chicago, deputy commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team. "We found bombs near some mosques. There is definitely the potential for increased violence, but the Iraqis so far have kept the lid on the pot."
U.S. officers here say a further cause for concern is that the arrival of the militias, who U.S. officials say receive training, arms and funding from Iran, has coincided with an influx of Iranian sniper rifles and roadside-bomb technology in the region. The latter includes highly lethal Iranian-designed "shape charges" that channel the blast to punch through armored vehicles. Such a device killed a U.S. soldier this month, the first U.S. fatality in the city of Kirkuk since the 101st Airborne returned to Iraq in November.