Fighting in Kirkuk is bad enough; in just one day last week, April 5, roadside bombs killed one Iraqi and one U.S. soldier and wounded half a dozen. But at the northern Iraqi city's Republic Hospital the cure to the violence turns out to be worse than the disease. Last month a promising young doctor at this, one of the city's two main Iraqi hospitals, admitted to being a terror cell plant. His assignment: to kill wounded Iraqis, particularly soldiers and policemen, arriving for treatment after insurgent attacks.
Loai Omar al-Taii, 27, confessed to killing more than 40 Iraqi soldiers and policemen after his terror cell leader was arrested by Iraqi forces and fingered him. The doctor, who appeared to his overworked colleagues a devoted caregiver particularly willing to serve in the emergency room, administered lethal injections as he pretended to treat the arriving wounded. He also confessed to surreptitiously admitting and treating insurgents in Kirkuk. With over 1,000 Iraqis injured in insurgent attacks during that time period, no one noticed.
The murderous plot is evidence not only of the depraved levels of the insurgency but also of the strategic significance of the oil province in the struggle for Iraq's future stability. Attacks in the once-stable city of just over 700,000 are on the rise, and four months after Dec. 15 elections, Kirkuk is one of the reasons Iraqi leaders have failed to form a cohesive government.
Pressured to step down, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari has stonewalled Kurdish demands for a referendum on Kirkuk's return to the Kurdish autonomous region, along with a plan for returning displaced Kurds to the city-both outlined in Iraq's new constitution. That is one reason the president, Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, is pressing the Shiite leader to step down.
While a unity government appears close to formation in Baghdad, the dispute over Kirkuk remains highly emotional. Just steps away from the U.S. military base here are vacant lots where Saddam Hussein's army bulldozed blocks of residential areas more than a decade ago. Outside the city, camps of displaced persons fester where the former dictator shunted Kurds he expelled as he brought in loyal Baathists and other Arabs to repopulate the area and to run its oil industry.
North of the city are remains of villages destroyed in Saddam's Anfal campaign, a pogrom against Kurds begun in the 1980s. Last week an Iraqi tribunal charged the dictator with genocide in connection with that campaign, estimated to have resulted in the death of more than 180,000 Kurds. The army poured concrete into village wells and desecrated cemeteries so that those expelled-at least 120,000 Kurds and Turkmen-would have no reason to return. Such circumstances help explain why Kurds insist on governing the province.
"We will never leave Kirkuk," Rizgar Ali Hamajan, a former soldier who heads the provincial council, told London's The Independent. "It is part of Kurdistan." Mr. Hamajan was 18 months old, he said, when his parents fled with him from his village north of Kirkuk moments before the Iraqi army destroyed it.
That history perhaps explains why many residents aren't entirely dismayed by the current level of insecurity. Tanya Gilly, a newly installed member of Iraq's 275-member parliament representing Kirkuk, told WORLD, "People are optimistic because they believe things can only get better." At a camp for displaced persons housed in a former military base outside Kirkuk, she said she was initially discouraged to learn the local government has not set up basic services for things like medicine. But those displaced are taking matters into their own hands. "They put up tents for their children to get an education, and the teachers are all volunteers," she said.
Many of the needy also agreed with the statement of a longtime Kurdish peshmerga, or soldier, who said that he "does not care if there is electricity, gas, or kerosene, just being able to sit around with his friends to talk about their political activities and beliefs, and to be able to criticize any member of the current government, is worth it," said Ms. Gilly.
Freedom is an opportunity for fledgling charities. Usama Polis heads a private aid team called Relief for Iraq's Poor, arranging minimal monthly support-often only between $17 to $33-for homeless families. His group makes up the difference by finding used clothing and furniture, providing free medical care, and distributing Bibles and Jesus films. "We can't say that we are filling all the families' needs by the distributed amount," he said, "but we can say that God is using us to fill a small part of their needs and make a small difference in their lives." Small provisions help families await answers to the big questions about Kirkuk's future.