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In Iraq, Kirkuk Residents Nervous As Power Turns Over Again


Control of one of Iraq's most ancient and disputed cities has changed hands again. Kirkuk, home to Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, reflects the country's divisions. Kurds had held the upper hand recently, especially after securing the town from ISIS. But when they voted in September to split from Iraq the central government in Baghdad sent forces that retook the city. NPR's Jane Arraf talked to Kirkuk's nervous residents.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: I'm in the market just below the Kirkuk citadel. It's the oldest part of the city and normally a hubbub of the voices calling out in Arabic, Turkmen, Kurdish. But these days there's a lot less Kurdish here. Shivan is a 30-year-old Kurd. He stands in the muddy streets selling top-up cards for mobile phones. He doesn't want to give his last name.

SHIVAN: (Through interpreter) Before if you spoke in Kurdish it was like a weapon in your hands. Before we had power here. Now we don't have any power.

ARRAF: The city has been fought over for a lot of its 4,000-year history. Saddam Hussein tried to Arabize Kirkuk by expelling other ethnic groups. Kurds gained power after he was toppled. They took military control after the Iraqi army collapsed amid the ISIS advance three years ago. But these days you just have to go up the hill to the citadel to see where power has shifted again.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Praying in foreign language).

ARRAF: On a recent Friday, Arabs and Turkmen prayed at a historic mosque for the first time in three years. The Kurds had closed the entire citadel to visitors for security reasons when they were in charge. With Kurdish forces gone, the Turkmen have reopened it. Next door to the mosque I get a glimpse of how deep people's roots go.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And this is the prophet Daniel and his...

FAROUKH SHEIKH MOHAMMAD: The prophet Daniel and Hanania and Michael.

ARRAF: Sheikh Faroukh Sheikh Mohammad shows me around a tomb said to contain the remains of the prophet Daniel, the biblical Daniel in the lions' den. He's Turkmen and traces his family back to servants of the prophet Daniel.

MOHAMMAD: (Through interpreter) This is the land of our ancestors. Kirkuk is our homeland.

ARRAF: But Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians and others consider it their homeland, too. Kurdish leaders consider Kirkuk their Jerusalem, the longed-for capital of a future state. But Kirkuk's Kurdish governor has been forced out and some Kurds have left the city. They feel threatened, especially by Iranian-backed paramilitaries who took back the city along with Iraqi forces. The acting governor when I was there, an Arab, Rakan al-Jabouri, says Kurds can feel safe here.

RAKAN AL-JABOURI: (Through interpreter) Our message is that security here is good. People here are coming back, particularly in the Kurdish neighborhoods, because they know it is safe.

ARRAF: But that's not what a lot of Kurds say. Hawre is a barber in one of Kirkuk's Kurdish neighborhoods. I don't use his full name because I met him when he was working at a polling station in September as Kurds voted for independence. He was so happy then.

HAWRE: Then my happiness go away because something happened and military of Iraq, they attack us.

ARRAF: And he's angry at the U.S. for allowing Iraqi forces to attack Kurdish fighters using American tanks.

HAWRE: Now I swear to God if I be president of Kurdistan, I go to Russia and make deal with them and buy United States because they don't do anything.

ARRAF: Hawre says now Kurds close their shop early at night and they stay in their neighborhoods. Like other Kurds here, though, he says holding the independence referendum was the right thing to do. He believes someday Kurds will have Kirkuk back again. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Kirkuk.


Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.