No place in Iraq has more to gain from Saddam Hussein's fall than the oil-rich Kurdish city of Kirkuk. And perhaps no place is more grateful for its liberation.
"Thank you Boosh and Bleer," reads graffiti spotted on a crumbling city wall; a misspelled thanks to President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain.
In a real sense, Kirkuk is the capital of a country that has never existed. Kurds think of its ancient city center as their own Jerusalem, yet they have never been able to secure a homeland around it. A nation of Kurdistan, if it were independent and unified, would be the size of Switzerland; instead, it spills across the borders of other autonomous nations, including Iraq, Turkey and Iran.
For decades, Saddam Hussein sought to remake much of Kirkuk and Iraqi Kurdistan in his own image. In an attempt to stamp out Kurdish culture, Saddam's regime flattened Kirkuk's old city, banned the Kurdish language, and offered Arabs from southern Iraq financial incentives to move north to the region, displacing thousands of Kurds.
As many as 5,000 Kurdish villages were destroyed, and more than 100,000 Kurds were slaughtered — some of them gunned down in the street, others tossed from the roof of Kirkuk's Saddam Hospital, their bodies left to decay by the side of the road. Human bones and other evidence of these atrocities surface almost daily.
"We know of 32 graves so far in this vicinity," an elderly Kurdish man disclosed this week.
New Life in Old Home
Now that Saddam has been unquestionably deposed, thousands of banished Kurds have returned to Kirkuk to reclaim their homes. Yet sorting out the many new property disputes that arise might prove difficult, because looters have torched most property records.
In the heady aftermath of regime change, freedom is taking on unexpected forms. There is optimism about what Americans have to offer, but many locals are also hedging their bets.
Every street corner is marked with the graffiti of one faction or another — even with the hammer and sickle. Last week, the communist party of Kirkuk held its first ever May Day celebration.
Freedom has also carried some surprising new priorities — such as television. Satellite dishes have become an instant fad: people drive to Kirkuk from as far away as Baghdad to buy them, even though a dish costs the equivalent of a six-month salary for a middle-class Iraqi.
"It's better than eating now," one Kurd says of television, "because we are thirsty for freedom, thirsty for these things."
Kirkuk's new local TV station, licensed by U.S. forces but run by independent local broadcasters, has a clear mission. "We have to tell people what is a democracy," the station manager explained. "That's the problem, they don't know anything about democracy."
As Kirkuk TV looks poised to explain it, democracy has a lot to do with free speech and open criticism of authority — and this time, that means of the United States.
"The first thing we're doing," the station manager said, "is making reportage among the people of Kirkuk, and ask them what they are thinking of the U.S. Army here, and how they see the U.S. Army inside Kirkuk, and what they want the U.S. Army and the U.S.A. to do for them in Iraq."
But because Kirkuk TV prefers not to showcase pre-war newscasters, and it hasn't had time to hire and train new correspondents, its anchors have been reading the news in the dark.
Prosperity at Baba Gurgur
Kirkuk residents expect peace and prosperity, and want to share in the wealth created by the Iraqi oil industry — of which their city is a major hub.
"This is what George Bush promised us, to bring Iraq into a very good position," one local, Abdel Rahman, explains. "We trust his word."
The next step is to make their dreams come true.
In the middle of the Kirkuk oil fields lies Baba Gurgur, a legendary pit of fire fueled by natural gas that seeps up from the soil. Break the surface, and the ground literally ignites.
Many locals believe these flames have been burning since life itself began; some say the site is the same "burning fiery furnace" mentioned in the Bible's Book of Daniel. Local custom is to come here, dig into and ignite the soil, and make a wish.
All across Kirkuk, people are waiting to see if their wish for prosperity — a freedom that coalition forces have made possible — will finally catch fire.
For now, some notice that a citadel high in the Kirkuk hills — where the prophet Daniel is thought to be buried, and which, until a month ago, was an Iraqi military base — has been made into a public park.