KIRKUK, Iraq -- If civil war were to resume in Iraq, a dread event that could mean the breakup of the world's next great oil power, Kirkuk is the likely epicenter.
It doesn't take much to set ethnic tensions boiling in this oil-rich province of 850,000, also named Kirkuk, which Kurds consider their Jerusalem but which Arabs and Turkmen also claim. An altercation on a street in the city of Kirkuk, a riot in a nearby Arab town and a car bombing shook the peace in the first half of this year, pitting Kurds against Arabs in a manner that Sunni Arab extremists are only too eager to exploit.
"Kirkuk is different from anywhere else in Iraq," said Col. Michael Pappal, the U.S. military commander at Contingency Operating Site Warrior, the American base at Kirkuk airport, soon to be turned over to Iraqi forces. "Does it have the most violence? No. The most lethal violence? No. Is this where the civil war is going to start? There's a potential for that."
Or, as Tahseen al-Shaikhli, an Iraqi government spokesman, put it: "Kirkuk is like a land mine on a lake of oil."
Nowhere, Iraqi and U.S. officials say, is the argument for keeping American troops in Iraq past Dec. 31 stronger than in Kirkuk.
"We are the glue that brings people together, that facilitates cooperation," said Pappal, a Creekside, Pa., native who commands the U.S. 1st Advise and Assist Task Force of the 1st Infantry Division, about 4,000 troops. "We're also the nuclear control rod that keeps things from going to critical mass. It's the two things together." Remove the control rod, and "you have a reaction that potentially could get out of control."
Iraq's political leaders are struggling with whether to ask the United States to keep some troops in the country after this year, when an agreement the two countries signed in 2008 dictates that they be gone. The Obama administration has said it would consider such a request, but time is short and the decision is caught up in a logjam of competing Iraqi interests, including the appointment of ministers to run the country's Defense and Interior ministries.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appears to favor a continued U.S. presence, but other members of his coalition are opposed, including the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose disarmed Mahdi Army militia until recently appeared prepared to attack American troops if they remained. U.S. military planners warn that the pace of withdrawal for the last 46,000 Americans is picking up, and they've said they need to know by July 30 what the Iraqis want.
"Nobody will touch the Kirkuk problem for the time being, nor reach within 100 feet of it," Shaikhli said. "The American troops are the balance of everything there."
That view is widely shared in Kirkuk.
"The Iraqi security forces do not have the ability to secure Iraq's borders, its airspace or its sole seaport in Basra," said Najmeldeen Kereem, the Kurdish governor of the province. The U.S. is needed, he added, "not just for their military role and advice, but for mediation during crises."
Even Sunni Arabs who want the U.S. to leave acknowledge the role of its troops in keeping competing sides apart. "Occupation forces are never good for any country. Their presence is not right and I believe that they should go," said Husein Ali Salih, a member of the Kirkuk provincial council. But, he added, "their withdrawal may tip the scales in favor of any side. Who knows which?"
As with most of the American troops still in Iraq, the mission of Pappal's 4,000-strong "Devil Brigade" is training Iraqi police and soldiers to combat violent extremists. But in Kirkuk, its primary role is crisis management.
Kirkuk is plagued with complicated ethnic rivalries, a legacy of Saddam Hussein's effort to dilute the region's native Kurdish population by moving tens of thousands of Arabs here from the south. A former aide to Saddam, Izzat al-Douri, is directing insurgent forces from Syria, Pappal said.
These include Naqshabanda, the military arm of the new Baath Party, which targets mainly foreign forces, and Ansar al-Sunna, which targets both civilians and foreign military. Both work with the group al-Qaida in Iraq and its close cousin, the Islamic State of Iraq, which attack civilians. Their active numbers are relatively small -- "hundreds, if that" -- but their support base may be in the thousands, Pappal said.
A mix of forces are arrayed against them: police, about 12,000 for the province, who are a mix of Kurds, Turkomen and Arabs; the Kurdish Regional Guards Brigade, thought to be 3,000 to 4,000 troops; and the 12th Iraqi Army Division, which is three-quarters Arab and totals 15,000. To complicate things further, an unofficial Kurdish force known as the Asayish has 300 uniformed police, a much larger number of undercover agents and two lines of organization, one for each of the main Kurdish political parties.
Some times the forces face off against one another, which is where Pappal comes in.
Pappal, who holds up to 10 meetings a week with different armed groups, as well as the region's Kurdish governor, has had to step in regularly to keep the various sides apart, most recently when a car bomb killed 28 people two months ago in the parking lot of the main provincial police station. The casualties included members of the Asayish, which aspires to be the Kurdish FBI but isn't recognized by the central government.
The commander of the Asayish, which had been targeted by previous bombings, was livid, Pappal recalled. "They were emotional and upset. They blamed it on the IP," he said, meaning the local Iraqi police. They took the attitude " 'We are no longer going to cooperate,' " he said.
"I'm not sure exactly what he was going to do, but he was going to do something," Pappal said of Gen. Halo Najat Rashid, the Asayish commander. Pappal spent two hours talking to Halo to persuade him to do nothing for a day. He called political leaders. Then he alerted the governor, who called in all parties to air their anger.
"It was a week's worth of bringing everybody back together," Pappal recalled.
Other incidents in the province this year also required the U.S. to step in to keep peace between competing Kurdish and Arab groups.
When Sunni Arab demonstrators burned the government offices in the predominantly Arab town of Hawija on Feb. 25, the Kurdish Regional Guards Brigade moved south, claiming it was trying to protect the city of Kirkuk from Arab mobs. But the area it moved into was already under the control of the 12th Iraqi Army Division, and a confrontation loomed.
"It raised up all the political tensions of the area," Pappal said. It wasn't until March 31 that the Kurds had fully departed, he said.
On April 25, in the city of Kirkuk, another crisis loomed when Iraqi army troops riding in a pickup got into a "road rage" fight with a man on the street and shot him. Asayish troops, whose headquarters were nearby, responded. Gunfire broke out and three members of the Asayish were killed.
Pappal, who by coincidence was having lunch with two generals at the headquarters, warned them that they had to stop the confrontation from escalating "or I have to go out to stop it." The generals came up with a solution. "They had to," Pappal recalled.
Pappal is confident that even the worst-case confrontation won't lead to civil war -- as long as Americans remain in Kirkuk.
"Not while we're here," he said. "It won't happen while we're here."
(c) 2011, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.