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Recalling The Fall Of Northern Iraq

The Kurdish troops that advanced toward Kirkuk intended to change the demographic setting that had been imposed by Saddam Hussein and his regime. One of their first targets was the census and real estate departments which they burnt to the ground.
Recalling Moments From The Fall Of Northern Iraqi Cities
Hazem Al Amin, Dar Al-Hayat, 2003/04/22

Kirkuk (Northern Iraq) - The coming days could bring answers to the question that raised anxiety among many Iraqis regarding the withdrawal of the Iraqi army and its replacement by Kurdish and American troops.

But what does the collapse of the Iraqi regime in a certain city mean? It simply the collapse of everything. The regime is present in the daily lives and in the mentality of its citizens. The children study it at schools even before maths, history or sciences. The regime is the only fact -and not only an illusion. And for the residents of Iraqi cities, the withdrawal of the army represented not the end of a regime, but the sudden collapse of an entire world.

We had the opportunity to witness such moments across several Iraqi cities, but all we were to do at the time was to pause at more than a single scene and attempt to connect events with the moments that preceded such events.

The raging crowds in Kirkuk were not expected to leave standing a single symbol of the regime. They were even expected to target themselves since the structure of the Saddam regime penetrated deep into their souls. We often witnessed in Kirkuk crowds who were on the verge of committing self-destructive acts. The Pepsi Cola plant, for example, was totally a private venture. Yet it was targeted by the angry crowd who were convinced that its owners must have been associated with the regime in some form, otherwise they would not have received a permit to operate freely. Similarly, the oil facilities that were ravaged by the demonstrators, causing billions of dollars in losses, were a symbol of the lifeline of the regime and a source from which it derived it strength.

The raging crowd that rushed to destroy everything was in fact rushing toward themselves, and the collapse that took place affected all, the oppressors and the victims alike: Arabs, Kurds, the Baath Party and the tribes.

The large group of people who arrived in Suleimaniyeh were wearing green bands around their heads to indicate that they belonged to the Kurdish Patriotic Union, and they met with the smaller crowed arriving from Arbil, who were wearing yellow bands around their heads, to indicate that they belonged to the Kurdish Democratic Party. Followers of both parties competed to occupy the security centers, with a clear success for the former.

But it is hardly sufficient to attribute what took place to current factors: The Americans did not enter in time, or that the Kurdish parties conspired with the looters, or to say that the looting was part of experiences that they had acquired during their many wars, including the invasion of Kuwait, and the earlier ransacking of Iranian cities. Such explanations may carry part of the truth, but they remain lacking unless grasping the fact that the collapse affected an entire society.

All residents participated, at varying degrees, in the dance of the great collapse. The inner slums of Kirkuk were an example. We entered them a few hours after the withdrawal of the Iraqi army. Children toyed with RPG launchers which had no ammunition, while the mothers were busy looting the remains of the regime in office furniture and items that no one knew how to use. In their effort to destroy institutions of the regime, people become selective in choosing their targets. Symbols gradually lose their prestige in representing the authority of the collapsed regime.

The Pepsi plant was targeted first because it had a less symbolic status for the oppressiveness of the regime. It was followed by civil institutions that were associated with the regime, such as the fire brigade and ambulance service. Those were followed by the traffic police cars. The statues of Saddam Hussein do not follow such hierarchy. Such statues are the deliberate expression of the regime. Thus, most of those who are the first to attack them are usually from outside the city, such as the Bismarka and the American troops. They are followed by the city residents, who usually wage real battles against it. Children hit it with their shoes, curse it and shout in its face as if defying Saddam Hussein in person.

Entering Kirkuk on that day allowed us the opportunity to witness the collapse of every thing at a single moment. The walls that had been filled with the sayings of the leader suddenly lost their sway. The expressions that were the day before the source of terror became a subject for ridicule and vengeance. Wise men of the city watched as they were aware of the difficulty of stopping what was taking place. Weapons were neatly arranged in the cars. Many of them had been destroyed and had their magazines removed. Even arms had lost their influence with the collapse of the regime. The green Lada cars that were used by the security agencies were driven by the Kurdish troops who parked them next to the houses of their relatives while they continued their looting.

Presidential palaces were also not a primary target for the crowds. They waited while the dread of such temples of authority waned down. In building palaces throughout the country, Saddam did not aim to live in them in as much as to indicate his presence in all parts of Iraq. That was enough to spread terror into the hearts of the population. Like the statues, the palaces are a naked expression of the regime. The statues have a symbolic expression, and thus tearing them down demanded an initiative in order for the crowd to finish the mission, while the palaces are the real seat of authority, the place where the people remained ignorant of what they contained. The palaces were not a spontaneous target for the looters; they maintained their function as a center for terror for many hours after the collapse of the regime.

Taking a walk around the city of Kirkuk reveals the difficulty of extracting the regime from the general scene. Every thing was arranged according to the imagination of the president leader. The markets are called the "markets of nationalization", and so are the schools and hospitals. The Baath is present on the walls and in the names of stores, while all the citizens had was the official dictionary in order to converse with. Even when they want to curse Saddam, they address him as "Mr. President."

The Kurdish lady who invited us to her house in one of the poor areas remained reserved about criticizing the regime. She was uncertain about the final departure of the Baath Party. All she said was that the army had withdrawn, and that a few days earlier, the Arab settlers had left the city. Many of the residents of Kirkuk reiterate the story of such settlers. In an attempt to "Arabize" Kirkuk, the regime began many years ago to place Arabs in the city and in villages that surround it while many of its original Kurdish and Turkman population were forced to move to other parts of the country.

There is no trace for the inhabitants of such villages. Their Arab residents did not even make an effort to mark their presence. They are surrounded with military barracks that had been built according Babylonian citadels, which Saddam Hussein is said to have designed. These citadels were targeted by the American bombing.

But apart from military and security locations, there is no trace of the American bombing in Kirkuk. There are a few tanks and individual barricades that seem to have been abandoned by the Iraqi soldiers before being targeted. The citadels at the entrance of Kirkuk are an indication that the regime erected them in order to confront some challenge, but their speedy evacuation was also evident.

The expression on the faces of the workers in the Northern Oil Company which is headquartered in Kirkuk reflected disbelief of the damage to the oil installations. Most of the engineers are Arabs who had been brought from other areas in Iraq, which made it difficult for them to protect the installations where they work and leave near by. Hussein is a bearded engineer who was walking around quietly on the verge of tears. He walked around refusing to talk. Many of them did not leave because they never felt that they belonged to the regime, but they suddenly discovered that it was the regime that held everything together. The stunned engineers arrived that morning to find American troops and different guards moving around between the huge machines that refined 50 percent of Iraq's oil. They found wreckage of the installations thrown around. They were unable to reach an understanding with the Kurdish fighter because the latter saw them as tools of the regime of Saddam Hussein, and were convinced that Hussein had depended on the army and the oil to maintain his power.

The Kurdish troops that advanced toward Kirkuk intended to change the demographic setting that had been imposed by Saddam Hussein and his regime. One of their first targets was the census and real estate departments which they burnt to the ground. The move represented a model from what the regime had created and the extraction tendencies it established. Kirkuk now needs a new distribution of land ownership and proof of residency. The feud between the Kurds and Turkman over populations ratios lacks any reference. The Kurds depend on their majority in the north, while the Turkmans depend on support from Turkey which sent observers to ensure that their minority is not oppressed. But burning the census and real estate registration departments will return the city to the starting point in terms of that dispute. It is difficult to speculate the implications of such return, but it is certain that the Iraqis will not be able to handle it alone in light of the schisms that the regime had created within their demographic structure.

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