The Iraqi army major, a Kurd, didn't know what hit him. Col. David Paschal, the 6'6" commander of the 10th Mountain Division based in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk last year, had taken off the diplomatic gloves. As tea and soft drinks were served by fawning subordinates, the major almost preened in his easy chair. The top-ranked American soldier in the area had come to visit HIM.
After a few minutes of pleasantries--the Arabic translated by Paschal's female Lebanese interpreter--the officer from Chicago leaned forward in his seat. Rawboned hands as big as those of former Bulls defensive ace Jerry Sloan clasped themselves together, as if trying to avoid making fists.
His usual command voice grew even louder. He demanded to know why 200 Sunni Arab inductees had been turned away the previous week by the major. The major started to explain about not enough trucks and lack of bunks and...
"Bull! I know why," the colonel thundered. "Because they were Sunni! We can't have that here. We need every soldier we can get."
With that the colonel jumped out of his chair and, followed by his interpreter and junior officers, stalked out of the office. The tea and Cokes remained untouched. Paschal waved off the major's offer of a ride back to his vehicle. "He's a pretty boy," he muttered as the group marched a half-mile in 110-degree heat.
Saturday's lethal truck bombing in Kirkuk, which killed 73--including 35 children--and injured at least 254 while leveling some 80 houses, brought back the memory of the colonel's outburst. The major's refusal to induct Sunni Arabs into a local unit of the Iraqi army highlighted the divisions plaguing the city 155 miles northeast of Baghdad. Kurds, Arabs. Turkoman and Assyrians make up its population of nearly 850,000.
The fact that Saddam Hussein displaced thousands of Kurds living there in the '90s with his own Sunni Arabs and the fact that the city sits on top of some of the largest oilfields in Iraq help explain why the bombing occurred. Revenge. And money.
Another bomb exploded Sunday, injuring five, and two police officers were wounded the same day trying to defuse a car bomb. At least a dozen people are still missing and feared dead from Saturday's blast.
Two other facts show why Kirkuk remains a roadblock for both the Iraqi central government's administrative control and the U.S. military mission in Iraq. One is that because of the urban divisions, Kirkuk residents didn't even vote in last year's general election. That means their voices weren't heard at the polls or the political souks where funds and favors are handed out. The second is that a commission appointed to conduct a demographic census of the city--the better to parse the percentages of each part of the population--still hasn't been able to finish the job.
The Kurds think they hold a majority and so should be governed by the semi-autonomous district of Kurdistan farther north. But that would set a dangerous precedent for Iraq's delicate balancing act among Shia, Sunni, Kurds, Turkoman (a Turkic ethnic group) , Assyrians (an ancient people, today mainly Christian) and others for political representation and power.
The Citadel, a medieval-looking fortress 130 feet high across the Khasa River in Kirkuk, tells Kirkuk's history like the rings in a fallen tree. First it was a Jewish temple, then a Christian church, finally a Muslim mosque. Today it is a monument.
Last year two young men from Kirkuk started their own media company to provide video, audio, still photography and interpretation. They called it The Citadel, no doubt hoping that 21st century technology would help bridge thousand-year-old breaches. Saturday's slaughter suggests that many more such efforts are needed from all sides, with Americans like Col. Paschal acting as sometimes forceful referees, to keep the peace.
At some point in the history of this 5,000-year old settlement, it was called by an Assyrian name, Arafa. In Arabic, "arafa" means "to be acquainted with Allah in knowing each other, the land of equality with no boundaries," according to the IslamicFinder Web site. Kirkuk is a Turkoman word that means "a place that should be seen."
Iraqis of all stripe, and their American allies, can only hope that the oldest names of this volatile city will again one day mean what they say.