KHANAQIN, Iraq -- A new flashpoint has emerged in the Iraqi government's tense relationship with minority Kurds as Kurdish and Iraqi government forces vie for control of an ethnically mixed town, officials have said.
"The Iraqi Army still wants to enter Khanaqin, and the [Kurdish] peshmerga is present. Everyone is on edge," said Ibrahim Bajelani, a Kurd who heads the provincial council in the restive Diyala Governorate, northeast of Baghdad.
"If the Iraqi Army tries to enter without prior agreement, we can't be held responsible for the consequences," he added.
Tensions in Diyala are mounting after most of the 2,000 Kurdish troops who had been patrolling ethnically mixed areas withdrew this week to the edge of the Kurds' largely autonomous northern region, under pressure from the central government.
The Kurdish peshmerga militia has refused to pull out of Khanaqin, outside Kurdistan but home to Arabs and Kurds, near the Iranian border.
A suicide bomber killed 28 people at a police recruitment center in the nearby town of Jalawla, a day after peshmerga forces withdrew from the town at Baghdad's request and a peshmerga commander said the attack showed the Iraqi government could not handle security in the area.
Thousands of Kurds staged protests as the Iraqi Army approached Khanaqin last week to try to replace the peshmerga.
"A week ago, the Iraqi Army surrounded Khanaqin. This was illogical: Khanaqin is stable and there is no security breach," said Khanaqin Mayor Muhammad Mulla Hassan, a Kurd.
Iraqi troops remain outside the town and no fighting has occurred. But tensions are high.
A Kurdish delegation was in Baghdad on August 31 for talks with the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to seek a resolution to the dispute. Both sides have called for calm, saying the row can be resolved though dialogue, but officials have declined to give further details about the discussions.
Diyala, with large populations of ethnic Kurds, Arabs, and Turkomans divided into Sunni and Shi'ite religious groups, has remained a battleground for Sunni Islamist Al-Qaeda, which is seeking to stoke tensions as the rest of Iraq grows more stable.
"We never discriminated Arabs and Kurds," said Kurdish soldier Abu Peshawa. "Why are they treating the peshmerga like rebels? My brother served in Baghdad. Arabs and Kurds are all brothers."
But al-Maliki's government sees the peshmerga's withdrawal from Diyala as essential to its strategy of giving its own forces, not other armed groups, responsibility for security.
"The presence of peshmerga in Diyala is just like the presence of an outlaw militia," Sami al-Askari, a legislator in the ruling Shi'ite alliance, who is close to al-Maliki, was quoted as saying in the pan-Arab daily "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" on August 31.
Such remarks are sure to anger Kurds who say their role in combating Al-Qaeda in Diyala has gone unnoticed.
"Peshmerga forces have been martyred in the region in the name of stability and security," said Kurdistan's minister for peshmerga affairs, Omar Osman Ibrahim.
"There is a hidden hand encouraging greater tensions."
Mustafa Chawresh, a senior peshmerga official, said Iraqi forces elsewhere in Diyala had ululated, hoisted the Iraqi flag and told residents they had been liberated from the peshmerga.
But while Iraqi and Kurdish security men squabble, the town's civilians fear strife between peoples they say have been friends, at least most of the time.
"The Kurdish forces are also Iraqis," said Samia Karim, an Arab, standing in the street in her traditional dish-dasha and black cloak. "We have no problem with them. They know the customs of these areas. We don't want trouble."
At a busy market stall, Hussam Ahmad, added, "We never had problems between Arabs and Kurds and we don't need them now."