Ethnic tension running high in Kirkuk

Discord among Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens imperils Iraqi self-governance

March 07, 2004|By Aamer Madhani | Aamer Madhani,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

KIRKUK, Iraq - The grousing of a young member of the Iraqi Turkmen Front over prices at a Kurd-owned grocery last week nearly triggered an ethnically charged street fight on Kirkuk's main drag.

The shopkeeper snapped back with an ethnic slur, and the Turkmen Front member retreated across the street to ITF headquarters to retrieve his Kalashnikov, according to Iraqi police and witnesses. He then climbed to the building's balcony and reportedly fired two rounds in the general direction of the shop.

Within minutes, police and U.S. soldiers were at the scene, but not before dozens of Kurds poured into the street screaming obscenities at the Turkmen as he and his compatriots pointed weapons at the crowd.

Such is life in the tinderbox that is Kirkuk, where ethnic conflict has smoldered for months, complicating the delicate task of forging democracy in Iraq.

"Kirkuk is a flash point," said Mahmoud Mahmoud, a political adviser for the Iraqi Turkmen Front. "If things don't change soon, I fear this will end in a civil war. We will have to build walls to divide the city. It will be worse than Palestine."

The deepening tensions among this city's Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen populations came as tensions over the Kurds' desire for self-rule thwarted the scheduled signing in Baghdad of a transitional constitution for Iraq.

Between five and eight Shiite members of the Iraqi Governing Council balked Friday in part over a clause that said the permanent constitution would fail if two-thirds of voters in any three of Iraq's provinces voted against it. The Shiites argued that the law would have effectively given the Kurds the power to veto any effort to reduce their self-rule in the north.

The council has not addressed whether the Kurds would be able to expand their territory to include Kirkuk, an economic and cultural hub where they lived before being driven out by Saddam Hussein's regime.

The city has been troubled by strife in recent weeks.

On Feb. 28, one of the ITF's Kirkuk offices was ransacked by Kurds soon after a council official announced that Turkmen interests would be weighed in the writing of the transitional constitution.

A Patriotic Union of Kurdistan official said that the attack against the ITF was unfortunate but that jubilant Turkmens driving through Kurdish neighborhoods firing guns in celebration had provoked it.

Shortly after, Kirkuk officials declared a temporary 6 p.m. curfew. The city's Turkmen shop owners, in turn, held a one-day strike.

In late December, a firefight between Kurdish militiamen and Turkmen demonstrators left six people dead, and another clash in August killed 13.

Throughout the city, signs in the Kurdish language have been defaced. To the dismay of Arabs and Turkmens, the Kurdistan flag has been painted on light poles and is fluttering as ubiquitously as the Iraqi flag throughout the city.

Despite the rumblings, U.S. military officials and members of Kirkuk's local government insist that the city has been a model of stability. Many of the city's residents, however, would tell you otherwise.

"Kirkuk was a good place, but now the politics are ruining it," said Sajid Hussein, 25, an Arab.

For the Kurds, one thing is non-negotiable: Kirkuk must be included in any new Iraqi Kurdistan.

"The Iraqi Governing Council has clearly stated that it will respect historic and geographic lines," said Rizgar Ali, a Patriotic Union of Kurdistan official in Kirkuk and a member of the city's government. "Kirkuk is historically and geographically part of Kurdistan."

But the city's Arabs and Turkmens say they are angry and intimidated by what they see as the Kurdish effort to dominate Kirkuk, home to an estimated 800,000 people and one of the world's richest oil reserves.

Arabs and Turkmens each claim they are about half the population, and Kurds say they are about 40 percent.

It is unclear which figures are correct; the last comprehensive census in Iraq was taken in 1977.

Under Hussein's regime, thousands of Kurds were forced out of Kirkuk beginning in the late 1970s. After demolishing the Kurds' homes, the regime sold the land to Arab families at rock-bottom prices.

Since the fall of the regime, many of the displaced Kurds have decided to return.

More than 400 Kurdish families have moved into shabby mud huts at the edge of the city, near a soccer stadium. They have no electricity or running water. Initially, many of the families lived inside the stadium, but the structure was not set up to drain all their sewage properly, and most decided to move out, residents said.

Some Arabs said they are the ones being victimized.

Tahir Jassim, an Arab who moved to Kirkuk 20 years ago, said he watched in disbelief as Kurdish militiamen rampaged through his neighborhood about two months ago and spray-painted the Kurdish word for "reserved" on the outside of his and several other Arabs' homes.

"I understand that they want to return land to the Kurds who were forced out of Kirkuk, but why should they punish me?" said Jassim, 62. "This is my home. I have nowhere to go to. I will use force and fight to my death to protect it if I have to."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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