Bombings still part of life in oil-rich Kirkuk

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SULAIMANI, Iraq -- Recently, one of my "star" students---a cheerful and hard-working business major named Hardi---invited me to visit his home in nearby Kirkuk.

This sounded great. As a historian, I had been anxious to visit this ancient city ever since my arrival in Kurdistan two years ago to teach at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani.

Established as an important southern Assyrian outpost more than five-thousand years ago, Kirkuk -- known formerly as Arrapha -- boasts one of the oldest citadels in the Middle East, and is the site of several significant archaeological sites, shrines and tombs, including that of the biblical prophet Daniel.

KIRKUK HAS BEEN in the news a lot recently because it sits on top of one of the richest oil deposits in the world. Ownership of the sprawling metropolis situated about 150 miles north of Baghdad is bitterly disputed between Kurds, Turks and Arabs -- three major ethnic groups that claim historic, religious and legal autonomy over the city.

The Kurds say it belongs to them, but the Arabs -- who forcibly removed thousands of Kurdish citizens under Saddam Hussein's plan to "Arabize" Kirkuk -- maintain it's theirs. Meanwhile, the third largest population group -- the Turkomen -- claim at least part of the city's wealth.

Christians, Muslim, Zoroastrians and a mind-boggling mixture of other religious groups call Kirkuk home, including one of the smallest and most controversial groups, the Yezidis -- erroneously nicknamed "devil worshippers" by detractors because of their apparent claim that God granted Lucifer salvation after the wicked angel's fall.

Despite its wealth, Kirkuk is not a particularly attractive city. Dark, dirty, dull and crowded by dusty, war-torn slums, the old city also remains an extremely dangerous war zone -- next to Baghdad and Mosul, perhaps the most treacherous place in Iraq.

In recent years, this gloomy landscape of tumbledown houses, concertina wire and clouds of choking dust has become a popular hide-out and nesting ground for al-Qaida operatives and other anti-American terrorist groups. Attacks against the few remaining GIs occur regularly. Bombings rock the city on an almost daily basis.

MY STUDENT, HARDI, lives in that hellish place with his family. He and several other students commute to Sulaimai via taxi once a week, bravely negotiating the perilous, hourlong journey through scrubby hinterlands punctuated by security checkpoints every few miles.

Hardi's invitation to visit Kirkuk and his parents touched me deeply. That's because, two decades ago when he was a baby, his family fled Halabja -- scene of a grisly gas attack by Saddam's Iraqi military. That aerial attack killed more than 5,000 men, women and children, their bodies left bloated and rotting on village streets or dumped into mass graves.

Like thousands of other Kurds who survived the horrors of the Iraqi dictator, Hardi, now 19, and his family moved from one hot spot to another, eventually settling in Kirkuk. There his father found work and was able to send him to the American university, where he studies topics ranging from American history and art history to accounting and business finance.

The day before I was to accompany Hardi to Kirkuk, a security advisory issued by the U.S. State Department in Baghdad warned Americans to avoid travel outside the KRG (Kurdistan Regional Governate). Since this cautionary message came in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death at the hands of a team of American Navy SEALs, I wisely cancelled the long-awaited journey to the ancient Assyrian settlement.

Make of it what you will, but some higher power must have been looking out for me that day.

The very morning I was to visit Kirkuk, the city was slammed by a series of deadly explosions -- the worst in years. More than 40 people were killed and hundreds injured in the blasts.

Ironically, one of the explosions occurred near a historic site I had been planning to visit.

A few days ago, when I mentioned this incident to my class, one of the students -- also from Kirkuk -- pulled out his cell phone and showed me pictures he had taken of the carnage caused by the bombings. As I watched those videos, I remember thinking I had never seen anything more gruesome.

THOSE FEW MOMENTS of footage on his phone revealed some of the worst images I had ever seen -- images I'll never get out of my mind for the rest of my life. They were far worse than any Hollywood movie, because I knew the bodies I saw of dozens of mangled men, women and children were real, not movie props.

These people have been literally blown to pieces, their blood-splattered remains filling the streets and sidewalks where the twin blasts occurred. The most sickening sight was that of arms, legs and heads stacked high beside a trash can. Elsewhere, the mangled torsos of other corpses sprawled around an outdoor café where, moments before, they had doubtlessly been talking and laughing and sipping tea from tiny glasses.

As I handed the student back his phone and those awful videos, I'll never forget the words that came out of his mouth: "This is nothing," he said casually, "We're used to stuff like this. Happens all the time."

It was a shuddering and sobering comment -- a powerful reminder not only of the fragility of life itself, but also that peace and civility remain only distant dreams for many in this ancient, blood-soaked land.

(The writer is the author of more than 15 books and a former history professor at Augusta State University. He resides in Kurdistan, where he is a professor of history at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani, and is working on several new books.)

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