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Iraq: Ethnic Tensions In Northern Region Complicate U.S.-Led Stabilization Efforts

At least 12 people have been killed in two days of clashes between Kurds and Turkomans in and around the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz takes a closer look at the violence and the complications it poses for post-Hussein stabilization efforts in Iraq.

Prague, 25 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Ethnic violence has emerged as a new source of trouble for U.S.-led coalition forces in northern Iraq following weekend clashes between Kurds and Turkomans that killed at least 12 people.

The trouble began on 22 August in the northern city of Tuz Khurmatu, when a bomb exploded and destroyed part of the dome of a Turkoman Shi'a religious shrine. A riot ensued when Turkoman Iraqis in the city of 200,000 blamed Kurds for the blast. At least nine people were killed in the Tuz Khurmatu fighting.

The next day, the violence had spread to the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, about 70 kilometers further to the north, where at least three people were killed.

A statement issued yesterday by Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) denied any role in the violence. It blamed "foreign elements" and the remnants of Hussein's regime for the clashes in Tuz Khurmatu and Kirkuk.

Behruz Gelali, a PUK spokesman, is quoted by Turkish media today as saying that ethnic Turkomans started the violence in order to encourage Turkey to deploy troops in northern Iraq.

Saadeddin Arkij, leader of the Turkoman Front of Iraq, suggested the violence may have been started by terrorists trying to foment discontent between Kurds and Turkomans. But Arkij says the response of Kurdish police in Kirkuk exacerbated the tensions.

"We want our brethren [the Kurds] to intervene so as to put an end to this sedition and help ease tension," Arkij said. "For our part, we have started to ease tension. So [the Kurds] should deal with the issue properly and not let the terrorists do whatever they want. The coalition troops are themselves responsible for controlling the situation. Yesterday we called for an increase in coalition patrols and an end to police actions. The Kurdish police are behind such provocations. They refuse to speak with us in Arabic, only in Kurdish, which just widens the gap between us."

David Newton, the head of RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq and a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, says it is possible that the bomb blast in Tuz Khurmatu was an attack by supporters of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

"It is a possibility, since it was a bomb which destroyed the dome of the shrine. I think it's a real stretch to say it was Al-Qaeda. But it could be the supporters of Saddam trying to stir up ethnic tension. Beyond that [bomb blast], there was clearly no involvement [of the remnants of Saddam's regime.] It was Kurds versus Turkomans in the clashes."

But the mayor of Tuz Kharmatu, Muhammad Rashid, said the violence was not instigated by either foreign terrorists or the remnants of Hussein's Ba'ath Party regime. He said the responsibility lies with what he called "dubious elements" from both the Kurdish and Turkoman ethnic groups in his city.

"These acts don't serve the national unity or the Kurdish-Turkoman fraternity. For hundreds of years, they have lived together in this area without sectarian or doctrinal differences. Dubious elements from both parties were behind such sedition."

Still, others say the mayor is downplaying the severity of ethnic tensions in northern Iraq between the two communities.

Newton says the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq eventually may need to re-examine how its alliance with Kurdish factions in the north is impacting those tensions.

"The tension has been there. And this is one outbreak. But I think that the outbreak has been contained. Maybe the United States needs to take a look at its relations with Kurds and Turkomans and see if they can do something that would lower the tensions -- lower the grievances of the Turkomans."

Newton explained that repeated calls from the Turkoman community for Kurdish police in northern Iraq to be disarmed are complicated by the U.S. position on Kurdish peshmerga fighters -- a position stemming from Kurdish support for the U.S. military during major combat operations in Iraq earlier this year.

"The [United States] agreed that they would not disarm the Kurdish peshmerga and there is a project, as I understand, to turn them into border guards," he said. "It gets back to the facts of the war. The Kurds cooperated and helped the United States. Turkey, the friend of the Turkomans, placed obstacles in the path of the United States. And they suffer, I think, as a result. The Kurds have established a reputation of friendship and cooperation. And that bothers the Turkomans, who feel that they are being left out."

Indeed, many Turkomans resent the appointment of a Kurdish official -- Abdel Rahman Mustafa -- as the governor of Kirkuk.

For its part, Turkey's parliament had refused to allow U.S. troops to invade northern Iraq from Turkish territory during the spring offensive.

And although the United States has asked Turkey to deploy up to 10,000 soldiers to Iraq as part of a U.S.-led stabilization force, the Turkish parliament has yet to approve those deployments.

"I think this [violence] will make [Turkey], in a way, want to send the troops in even more," Newton said. "But it will be tricky because they will have to go through at least the northern part of Kurdistan. And the United States will not be willing to see them in northern Iraq. [The United States] clearly would want the Turkish troops to go into the south [of Iraq]. And they don't want them in any part where there are Kurds and Turkomans, because they feel [Turkish troops] will clearly side with the Turkomans and they would just exacerbate the situation."

The weekend violence has raised tempers in Turkey and led to street demonstrations in front of PUK offices in Ankara.

At least 23 police were injured along with an undetermined number of demonstrators yesterday when they clashed during the protest. The demonstrators condemned PUK leader Talabani and his Kurdish fighters. They also chanted slogans claiming that Kirkuk is and will remain a Turkish city.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his government is keeping a close watch on events in northern Iraq.

"Our Foreign Ministry declared our wish to the Americans that they must immediately become involved in the situation. We are watching the situation minute by minute in Baghdad, in Washington and also in Ankara."

Turkey has suppressed a Kurdish separatist movement within its own territory and has expressed concern about the growing Kurdish influence in the politics of Iraq.