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What happens when we leave Kirkuk

There is still plenty of violence in Iraq, but it sure looks like they have a good chance of pulling off a reasonably stable democracy there. This will be tested every time we pull farther back and, according to current arrangements, pull out of the country completely. Nowhere will this present a bigger challenge than Kirkuk and the oil fields that make it such a prize. Saddam tried to Arabize it and drive the Kurds out to some effect, but they still believe it is part of Kurdistan.

Grim and I attended a journalism fellowship at the U of Maryland where we got the chance to ask questions of Qubad Talabani, son of the Iraqi President. He is careful to avoid stating outright that the Kurds expect to secede and form their own country, but his answers in this clip and to other questions made it obvious that their own state is the end state they desire.

The Washington Post has a story on the folks responsible for security in this vital and disputed area.

"People will kill each other again. No Iraqi force can control it," said Mohammad Ahmad, 25, a Kurd who has gone out with a Fort Hood-based platoon on joint patrols over the past year. American forces are about to find out if their final mission of the eight-year conflict in Iraq - to quell violence along the disputed, northern Kurd-Arab border - produced a lasting foothold for peace., or will disappear in the shifting sands of a city older than Iraq itself.

Military commanders soon plan to begin "test cases" of withdrawing U.S. soldiers from checkpoints around Kirkuk. Like elsewhere along the so-called "trigger line," which separates land controlled by the national government in Baghdad and the country's semi-autonomous Kurdish government, they were deployed here a year ago largely as a peacekeeping force.

This will be the biggest test for Iraq as a country. There will quite likely be an armed conflict when the Kurds assert their claims to Kirkuk and to Kurdistan itself. We will be caught between allies, or perhaps worse, absent and incapable of coming between allies. We championed the Kurds when Saddam was oppressing them, and it will be a delicate path for us to walk if they decide to try it on their own.

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