From the crumbling Assyrian ramparts of Kirkuk's 3,000-year-old citadel, the giant open-air market snaking around its base seems the very picture of communal harmony: Kurdish, Turkoman and Arab shoppers navigate through narrow lanes, past stalls selling everything from fresh fruit to plastic flowers. My police escort, a Kurd, beams down with pride. "This is the perfect Iraq," he says. "Nobody angry, everybody happy."
At ground level, the market smells of bird droppings and open drains, and the mood is murkier. An Arab vendor of pomegranates loudly endorses my escort's claim that Kirkuk is a microcosm of an ideal Iraq. But when the policeman wanders out of earshot, he hisses, "Don't believe that Kurd. His people want Kirkuk for themselves. When the Americans leave, they will drive us out." (See pictures of U.S. troops' 5 years in Iraq.)
When the Americans leave: over more than five years, that phrase has cropped up in most of my conversations in Iraq. First spoken in hope, then inevitability, it is now uttered with a sense of urgency--and among some, alarm. Under the terms of the status-of-forces agreement ratified on Nov. 27 by the Iraqi parliament, U.S. troops must leave no later than the end of 2011; a referendum next summer could bring that deadline even closer. As the drawdown gathers speed, it will diminish the U.S.'s ability to influence Iraqi affairs. "Very soon, we will no longer have foreigners to blame for our problems--or to solve them," says Amar Fayyad, a political scientist at Baghdad University. "Iraq will be walking on its own feet."
Will it strut or stumble? When U.S. forces began to pull out of Baghdad and into suburban bases in 2005, the vacuum was filled by al-Qaeda bombers and armed Shi'ite and Sunni militants, who fought a two-year civil war. Now, however, the main vectors of sectarian violence have been turned back, weakened or co-opted. Although there has been no meaningful political or social reconciliation between the sects, their representatives in parliament have learned to form expedient alliances, which will doubtless continue as the parties jockey for power in post-occupation Iraq.
But don't expect peace to break out anytime soon. In a country seething with ancient animosities, it's almost certain that politics will be attended by violence. Ahead of provincial elections in January, there's a potentially explosive Shi'ite-vs.-Shi'ite clash brewing in the south. In Sunni areas to the west and north of Baghdad, a new alliance of tribal sheiks, many of them U.S.-funded ex-insurgents, are challenging the Sunni parties currently in power.
But it is in Kirkuk where the disputes seem most intractable. At its simplest, this is an old-fashioned turf war. The Kurds want the city and its hinterlands to be folded into the northern province of Kurdistan. Turkomans (a distinct ethnic group sharing ancestry with modern Turks) and Arabs would prefer it to remain outside Kurdish hegemony, in the separate Tamim province. Each group points out that the city was once ruled by its forebears. All know that outside Kirkuk is one of Iraq's largest oil fields. Also at stake is the larger, constitutional question of whether Iraq should have a powerful central government, favored by Turkomans and Arabs, or highly autonomous regions, as the Kurds wish. And finally, there are outside influences: Turkey backs the Turkomans and, with Iran, opposes greater Kurdish power.