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Monday, November 20, 2006


Kirkut is fighting back

Associated Press Writer

KIRKUK, Iraq (AP) -- A voice crackles through a two-way radio as U.S. soldiers patrol the dusty streets of this northern Iraqi city: A roadside bomb has exploded downtown, and there are casualties.

It's a routine call across Iraq, but one thing is different in Kirkuk: The voice on the radio is Iraqi, not American.

Iraqi forces are gradually taking the lead in policing Kirkuk, where sectarian violence is scant compared to places like Baghdad 156 miles south. The transition gives the American troops training them hope that they are closer to going home.

U.S. soldiers transferred authority to one Iraqi unit in Kirkuk in early autumn, and two others are scheduled for mid-January. By the time the Army's 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry heads home to Hawaii next summer, about half the Iraqi forces in Kirkuk - army and police - will be under Iraqi command, said Lt. Col. Michael Browder, a 45-year-old Clarksville, Tenn., native in charge of training the units.

"They're in the lead, but they still have on their training wheels," Browder said with a wry smile. He left this week to lead a mission organized and executed by Iraqi forces, going after a suspected terrorist group south of Kirkuk.

The city's ethnic diversity - a mix of Kurds, Sunni Arabs, Christians and Turkomen - helps insulate it from the Sunni-Shiite conflict battering other Iraqi cities, the capital especially.

But Kirkuk is not without violence. In the past three months, the city has seen about 20 car bombs that have killed or wounded 300 people - mostly Iraqi police and civilians, said Col. Khattab Omar Aref, commander of the Kirkuk police's best-trained group, the Emergency Services Unit.

Aref, 50, has survived six assassination attempts - including one in which a suicide bomber jumped onto the windshield of his car and exploded himself

"Kirkuk is my life, and I hope the rest of Iraq can use our example. We're the only ones who do attacks on the terrorists and not the other way around."

The Iraqi army is made up mostly of Shiites, so ethnic and sectarian balance is a concern in places like Kirkuk.

"I organized my men so that when we go out, we make sure there are Kurds, Christians, Arabs and Turkmen on each patrol," said Col. Samir Taher Rashid, 43, who commands Iraqi police on Kirkuk's north side. "I support federalism in Iraq, and in my units too."

He is referring to the potential division of the country into three mostly autonomous regions - Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the center and west and Shiites in their homeland south of Baghdad.

U.S. officials say Kurds, who claim they are majority in Kirkuk, are more comfortable with the ways of democracy after 15 years of self-rule in the north since the first Gulf War.

"They've had a 10-year head start in getting themselves organized and looking at how a democratic type system can work. They've had the ability to see beyond what the Iraqis right now are facing - the violence. They've seen that there can be a better way of life," Gen. Benjamin R. Mixon, commander of the Army's 25th Infantry Division, said in an interview this week.

But U.S. and Iraqi officials say the key to their success in Kirkuk is that citizens here see themselves as Iraqis first, and members of ethnic or tribal groups second.

"All the people came under my command - Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen. I told them they must work together as brothers," said Aref.

"We are all policemen, and the reason we became police is to save our city," he said in an interview at his office, where ornate gold-embroidered curtains hide sandbagged windows. A photo of him shaking hands with outgoing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld hangs prominently under a crystal chandelier.

Wind whips across Kirkuk's dusty plains, crisscrossed by verdant riverbeds, and it carries the acrid smell of oil byproducts burning at facilities on the horizon. It's a reminder of what could make this city prosper once violence recedes.

"It's not the time for retribution or payback - there's too much to lose," Browder said.

U.S. and Iraqi officials have established a telephone hot line for Kirkuk's residents to report insurgent activity or government corruption.

"They're not able to mount large scale terror operations because someone would tell on them here," said Capt. Rob Wolfe, a 37-year-old company commander from Amarillo, Texas.

Wolfe logs time every day sipping tea with Iraqi police commanders, going over training plans and listening to their concerns. He believes such "soft" training pays off.

"These guys are heroes to their people. Some of them came from Kurdish peshmerga militias and they've been fighting all their lives for their country," he said. "They're certainly not going to stop now."

Hat tip: AP.

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