In Kirkuk, a War on Garbage

gaskell kirkuk1h In Kirkuk, a War on GarbageKIRKUK, IraqHere in Kirkuk, the streets are lined with trash, and green, slimy sewer water runs down the streets. Children play soccer on fields littered with garbage, while sheep graze around them. Wild dogs and cats wander in and out of empty lots dominated by mounds of refuse—bottles, plastic bags and other assorted waste.

Flies are everywhere. It stinks. And the people just walk around it and in it and near it like it’s no big deal.

“If the city is dirty, no one is happy—no matter what you do for them,” said Abdul Rahman Mustafa, the governor of Kirkuk province.

For all the violence that has become a tragically frequent occurrence here, Mr. Mustafa has identified solving this city’s burgeoning litter problem as a key to restoring some semblance of normal life to Kirkuk, a city of more than 700,000 people just 150 miles north of Baghdad.

When Saddam Hussein was in power, residents buried their trash in their back yards or took it to a remote ditch and burned it. The government would occasionally pitch in to clean up—but usually only in preparation for national holidays.

Since 2003, the people of Kirkuk—a mix of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen—have been preoccupied with trying to stay alive with no water or electricity. So properly disposing of the day’s trash was no longer a priority. They have, accordingly, spent the past four years throwing their litter on the streets, either haphazardly or in huge piles on empty lots.

“Things are getting better here,” Mr. Mustafa said in an interview at his office in the Kirkuk Government Building, which fairly bustles with politicians and their aides. “The people here are feeling better about their city, and with that comes more security. People now tell us when they see something wrong, because they care about Kirkuk once again.”

While Kirkuk is relatively safe compared to Baghdad, security is still the No. 1 issue here, and conditions could worsen in coming months as a referendum deciding its fate—whether to remain within the jurisdiction of Iraq proper or align with the Kurdish Regional Government—is expected to take place by the end of the year.

For the moment, Mr. Mustafa and his colleagues are subscribing to a sort of post-apocalyptic version of the “broken windows” theory that originated in New York City with former Mayor Rudy Giuliani in 1994. Their notion is that when the city looks cleaner, it feels safer—and it’s a lot harder to plant explosive devices on the side of the road when there isn’t a bunch of garbage there to hide them.

“Now people have nothing, so they don’t care,” said Edward Oroham, a Kirkuk Provincial Council member who helped create a garbage plan for the city. “We are trying to teach them to care about their city again. It’s not easy.