Iraq police station is seized by Kurds

Militia objects to a new Sunni Arab commander

September 26, 2006|By Kim Murphy | Kim Murphy,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Kurdish militiamen seized a police station in northern Iraq yesterday to prevent its transfer to a new Sunni Arab commander, igniting a daylong standoff that echoed the parliament's continuing unease over territory-sharing in the final administrative map of Iraq.

The clash in the town of Jalawla underscored the potential for violence as parliament prepared to study the contentious issue of creating autonomous regions in this multiethnic and heavily armed nation.

While most of the biggest political disputes are likely to center on oil fields in the south, in largely Shiite areas, and the northern city of Kirkuk, an oil-rich area claimed by the Kurds, the clash in Jalawla was an early warning flash in what many fear could be a turbulent battle for the frontiers of a future Kurdish zone.

Authorities said the former Kurdish police commander in Jalawla, who was recently removed from his job by the Diyala provincial council, arrived at the station Sunday night, accompanied by a force of Kurdish armed men, and laid siege.

The Kurdish forces opened fire at the police station with heavy machine guns and rocket launchers, police sources said, destroying three cars and entering the building. The new commander and his men were reportedly locked in a room, but police had only sporadic communications through the day and did not know whether any were injured or killed.

Authorities in the nearby regional police headquarters had established a command post and were preparing a plan to retake the station, police sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Kurdish leaders say Jalawla, about 95 miles northeast of Baghdad, near Iran, was primarily a Kurdish town years ago. Hundreds of Kurds were driven out during the 1980s by former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's "Arabization" campaign in northern Iraq.

Kurds have been pushing to include such lands within the boundaries of an officially designated and largely autonomous Kurdistan. Most prominent has been the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, the scene of violence this month when six bombs exploded and killed 24 people. More than 80 people were injured.

The regional parliament of Kurdistan forwarded a draft constitution to the government in Baghdad on Sunday that includes Kirkuk and other disputed areas within Kurdish-controlled territories. As now organized, the northern Kurds have their own president, taxing powers and militia, and they exercise primary authority over natural resources, including oil and water. Many Shiites want similar powers in the south.

Like Kirkuk, Jalawla is a mixed city, with Arabs and Turkmen living alongside Kurds. The local council insists that the town, on the southern edge of the Kurdish-dominated north, remain part of the Diyala province and outside an eventual Kurdistan.

As the dispute has mounted in recent months, Arab residents have complained of harsh treatment at the hands of Kurdish militia forces. Those complaints were followed by the Kurdish police chief's ouster Sunday, setting the stage for the clash over the installation of the commander.

The broader scope of the debate was under way in Baghdad as the parliament began setting up a committee to review the constitution in preparation for proposed legislation that could clear the way for semiautonomous regions not only in Kurdistan but all over Iraq, including oil-rich Shiite areas of southern Iraq.

Sunni Arabs, concentrated in the resource-poor central and western regions, have sought to block the creation of more federated regions. They fear it would cut them off from oil revenues and splinter the country.

An agreement over the weekend put off a political crisis by calling for the constitutional review and a delay in creating any such regions for at least 18 months after any new federalism law is enacted.

But parliament deputies argued yesterday morning over the timing of the constitutional review. Kurdish deputies at one point walked out in the face of accusations from one lawmaker that Kurds had driven Arabs out of the northern city of Mosul.

The parliament ultimately agreed to the proportional composition of the review committee and was set to name its members today. Parliament speaker Mahmoud Mashadani, a Sunni, urged lawmakers not to lose sight of the significance of the compromise in an issue that had threatened Iraq's four-month-old national unity government.

Kim Murphy writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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