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ON POINT II: Transition to the New Campaign

The United States Army in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM May 2003-January 2005





Part III

Toward the Objective: Building a New Iraq


Chapter 10
A Country United, Stable, and Free: US Army Governance Operations in Iraq

 

The US Army in Kirkuk: Governance on the Fault Lines of Iraqi Society

As illustrated by the 101st ABN’s efforts in Mosul, some of the most significant difficulties facing the US Army’s governance operations were the ethnic and sectarian divisions in Iraqi society. Saddam’s dictatorship had used repression to keep a lid on the tensions that existed along these fracture lines, but those stresses had erupted in outright violence at times, such as the Shia revolt in the south of Iraq following Operation DESERT STORM in 1991. When OIF removed the authoritarian rule of the Baathist state, those tensions once again surfaced. Although some Soldiers were aware of the ethnic and religious differences that existed in Iraq, very few were prepared to deal with them directly. Certainly, few expected to place themselves between competing groups as these groups sought ways to redress injustices that had occurred under Saddam’s rule.

Perhaps the most volatile site for this type of conflict was the city of Kirkuk, located in northern Iraq approximately 150 miles north of Baghdad. The city was located in what was historically Kurdish territory, but its population had long been a mix of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrian Christians, and Turkoman. Situated in the heart of Iraq’s oil fields, Kirkuk had strategic importance for much of the 20th century. Partly for that reason, in the 1970s and 1980s Saddam attempted to “Arabize” Kirkuk by forcing Kurds to leave and moving Arab groups in. The arrival of Coalition troops in the city in May 2003 opened up the possibility for the Kurdish population to take control once again over an important cultural and economic center.

The 173d Airborne Brigade (173d ABN) took responsibility for the city soon after the toppling of the Saddam regime. In May 2003 Soldiers of the brigade found themselves attempting to mediate between groups of armed Arabs moving north to ensure the Kurds did not overwhelm the city and the Kurdish groups that had begun flexing their muscles by forcibly evicting some Arabs. On 17 May this conflict became violent with firefights erupting in the streets of Kirkuk. Colonel William Mayville, the brigade commander, recalled that this event served as the “really big first lesson into, or insight into what some of the social dynamics in this community at play were.”56 He added, “If you did not address [these dynamics], the consequences could be very, very violent.”57

Over the next 8 months, the 173d ABN mediated between the various groups to find a peaceful solution to the problem in Kirkuk. As early as May 2003, however, officers in the brigade began to understand that the creation of political stability in the city meant downplaying the Coalition’s goal of creating a truly democratic process. One of the unit’s reviews of the political situation in Kirkuk that month noted that the city’s residents “have only a limited understanding of Western Democratic processes.”58 The report described other impediments to the establishment of a democratic form of municipal government, noting that the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the major Kurdish political group in Kirkuk, was a highly centralized party and the Arab tribes in the city did not view nonfamily officials as having any political legitimacy.59 To make the overarching point more emphatic, the review stated there was no “popular mandate for immediate transition to representative government” and closed with a more direct statement: “Political Legitimacy ? establishing a popular democracy.”60

Instead of finding citizens eager for democracy, the Soldiers of the 173d ABN discovered a multiethnic populace interested in removing all vestiges of Baathist power and solving the problems of Saddam’s Arabization policies, while also ensuring their ethnic group retained its social, economic, and political position in the city. This presented a complex problem to the Soldiers of the brigade, the large majority of whom had no experience in politics of any type. These Soldiers found themselves in a very unusual position, and they required time to understand the interests involved and the key politicians with whom they worked. However, given the tensions surrounding the Arabization policies, the 173d ABN had to act immediately to create some type of representative government that might be able to create consensus among the competing groups.

One of the first recommendations made by brigade officers was the establishment of a multiethnic city council that could help redress the grievances of the various groups and begin moving the city forward. By the end of May 2003, less than 6 weeks after the brigade arrived in Kirkuk, Mayville and his governance team orchestrated the selection of 300 delegates from the city that in turn elected a 30-seat council, which included 6 representatives from each of the 4 ethnic groups. The new system also mandated the seating of six at-large candidates who could come from any of the ethnic groups and would be selected by the Coalition military authorities. In late May, Major General Odierno, the commander of the 4th ID, the unit responsible for the province in which Kirkuk was located, chose four Kurds, one Assyrian Christian, and one representative from a multiethnic tribe for these six seats.61 Because Kurds held four of the at-large positions, representatives from the other groups launched immediate protests, demonstrating that the US Army’s attempts to establish new governance in Kirkuk would be anything but easy.

Mayville and his Soldiers did have some successes in the summer of 2003. Working with civilian consultants from the Research Triangle Institute (RTI), the contractor who had partnered with USAID, brigade officers convinced the city council to establish a new structure that included five directorates: employment, public safety, public works, budget office, and resettlement. The employment directorate would play a direct role in enforcing the de-Baathification process and US officers hoped the resettlement office could work with both Arabs and Kurds to defuse the tensions caused by land disputes.62 RTI consultants and CA officers also assisted the new Kirkuk budget office prepare the city’s budget for 2004 and established a citizens bureau to help handle complaints from the public. However, Mayville noted that by late 2003 some in Kirkuk had begun to see the council as unrepresentative and they began to mount protests.63 Soon, ethnic rivalries reasserted their control over politics in the city and the brigade commander had to play a more active role in persuading the local authorities to continue down a peaceful path of compromise. By that date, Mayville was unsure of how to define a successful political outcome in Kirkuk and resorted to hoping to “break even” in the city.

When the 173d ABN left Iraq in February 2004, the situation in Kirkuk was still tense. After months in the city organizing and mentoring the new government, it was unclear whether the city was any closer to a stable future than it had been after the violence in May 2003. Mayville’s brigade turned the city over to the 2d Brigade, 25th Infantry Division (25th ID), a unit that served under the command of the 1st ID. The brigade commander assigned the overall mission of fostering political progress in the city to his Team Governance, a small group of Soldiers from the brigade’s Judge Advocate General staff section. Led by Major Sam Schubert, the team worked with US State Department officials and the Kirkuk city and provincial councils on a daily basis in an attempt to create greater political progress.

Team Governance was not alone in conducting governance operations. Soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry (1-21 IN), the main maneuver element in Kirkuk, assisted the larger effort in a number of ways. Despite the creation of local representative bodies in 2003, continued grievances among the ethnic groups ensured the city remained restive throughout 2004. The discord caused peaceful protests as well as direct attacks on politicians and specific neighborhoods where ethnic groups resided. On 15 March 2004, for example, Sheik Akar, a Shia Arab city councilman, was assassinated in a drive-by shooting while he was en route to the government building in Kirkuk.

To prevent the violence from overwhelming the progress made by the Coalition in Kirkuk, Soldiers from 1-21 IN provided security for local officials and ensured street protests did not escalate into riots. Some leaders in the battalion became involved in the intricacies of the disputes in the Kirkuk region.64 Throughout the summer of 2004, for example, the commander of the battalion’s headquarters and headquarters company and his scout platoon leader met repeatedly with leaders in the nearby town of Taza where they tried to mediate a dispute between Turkoman and Arabs over land in the village of Busheir, which had been occupied by the latter group during the Arabization program.65 As the summer ended and the conflict continued, the responsibility for ensuring negotiations continued in a peaceful manner fell to the officers of the 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry. The fact that 2004 ended with no lasting resolution to the Busheir land dispute was emblematic of the deeply-rooted political problems facing the Soldiers of the 2d Brigade, 25th ID in Kirkuk. The elections of January 2005 approached with Kirkuk and its environs still simmering with ethnic tension.


Chapter 10. A Country United, Stable, and Free: US Army Governance Operations in Iraq





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