Ethnic tensions resurface in Kirkuk

Kurdish and Turkmen forces clash in gunbattle

A potential problem for U.S.

War In Iraq

April 12, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KIRKUK, Iraq - Kurdish and Turkmen fighters exchanged fire on a busy boulevard here yesterday, raising ethnic tensions only a day after the Iraqi government lost control of the oil-rich region.

The daylight skirmish was a reminder that Kirkuk's Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens and Assyrians distrust each other nearly as much as they had distrusted the government of Saddam Hussein, and that such fighting could become a major distraction for American troops.

It could also alarm Turkey, Iraq's northern neighbor, which is opposed to Iraq's Kurds becoming a dominant force. With the Bush administration's approval, Turkey will send military observers to the region.

Turkish politicians say they want to defend the Turkmen Iraqis, who share linguistic and cultural ties with Turkey. Kurds say the Turks have designs on Kirkuk's rich oil fields. Both groups claim to be the majority - though Turkmens are almost certainly a minority - in this ancient city, sometimes referred to as the "Kurdish Jerusalem."

If there is more violence, the American military could be caught in the middle. Paratroopers with the United States' 173rd Airborne arrived at Kirkuk's military airfield yesterday and assumed control of the oil fields west of the city from Kurdish pesh merga fighters.

Today or tomorrow, the Americans, working with Kirkuk's police force, will start providing security for this city of 800,000. Police officers and firefighters vanished from Kirkuk's streets Thursday, apparently fearing they would be identified with Saddam Hussein's rule.

At least some of the pesh merga participated in the looting and theft that occurred here in the hours after the Iraqi soldiers fled. Those troops began withdrawing yesterday to their bases in the north.

Gen. Hamid Rahim, a Kurdish commander, denied that there had been any singling out of Turkmens by Kurds. He blamed what tensions exist on the Turkish government in Ankara. "For years, the Turkmen and the Kurds have been brothers," he said. "But Turkey has made trouble between us."

The looting was triggered by the tensions of war, he said in an interview in the regional governor's office. "When war comes to a city, things happen there. Now it is OK. We think it is better than yesterday."

He swept his arm around the room. "You see?" he said. "They took all of the furniture yesterday, and we made them bring it back."

It was not clear what triggered yesterday's gunbattle. A figure inside a second-floor window of the United Turkoman Front offices on Baghdad Road exchanged fire with several armed men heading toward the storefront.

Drivers slammed on brakes and made screeching U-turns to avoid the crossfire. One Turkoman was said to be injured in the exchange.

At the central United Turkoman Front office, the mood was ominous. "Many people have had their houses attacked or burned or have had their furniture stolen," said Mustafa Kemal Yaycili, an Iraqi Turkmen who just returned from more than a decade of exile. "All of them are scared."

He charged that the Kurds from the north were persecuting the city's Turkmen minority by looting and burning their homes or stealing their cars and furniture. In response, he said, his group is encouraging Turkmens to arm themselves and fire over the heads of their attackers.

"We want to say, `Here we have guns,'" he said. "`We can protect our people from you.'" One Turkmen named Nadem Arif was killed Thursday, Yaycili said, when Arif tried to stop armed Kurds from stealing his car.

Anxious Iraqi Turkmens gathered in their party's central headquarters later in the day, bringing a stack of Kalashnikov rifles. Young men thronged the street outside, suspiciously eyeing pesh merga militia.

Most of the looting and arson was aimed at symbols of government power - a shopping mall reserved for government officials and Baath Party members, and the city's Department of Road Maintenance. Carjackings were not solely aimed at Turkmens.

Luka Hannah, a 50-year-old supervisor and engineer in a state-owned refinery, said four gunmen dressed as pesh merga came to his Assyrian Christian neighborhood Thursday and demanded his 1978 Mercedes-Benz sedan. The same gang stole at least five other cars from neighbors, he said.

Yesterday's violence came after the worst of the looting seemed over, and some of the fires smoldering in banks and government offices had been extinguished. Pesh merga commanders seemed to have begun imposing discipline, too: They intercepted dozens of stolen vehicles yesterday, including a modern city fire truck, at a checkpoint north of town.

The tensions followed a military victory here that claimed remarkably few lives. Rahim said that just 12 Iraqi soldiers and one pesh merga fighter were killed in Thursday's fighting in and around Kirkuk.

Brendan Paddy of the international aid group Save the Children toured Kirkuk yesterday and said it was in remarkably good shape for a city that had endured bombing, a 20-day siege and a full-scale assault.

There was little physical damage, few civilian casualties and no major humanitarian-aid problems. The only thing that worried him, he said, was the potential for ethnic strife.

"This isn't Bosnia," he said. "But we don't want to see it turn into anything that even remotely resembles Bosnia."

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