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[casi] Iraq: Ethnic trouble in the north

Aug 27, 2003

Ethnic trouble in the north

By Ron Synovitz

PRAGUE - Ethnic violence has emerged as a new source of trouble for United
States-led coalition forces in northern Iraq following weekend clashes
between Kurds and Turkomans (ethnic Turks living in Iraq) that killed at
least 12 people.

The trouble began on August 22 in the northern city of Tuz Khurmatu, when a
bomb exploded and destroyed part of the dome of a Turkoman Shi'ite 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

The next day, the violence 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 by Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)
denied any role in the violence. He blamed "foreign elements" and the
remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime for the clashes in Tuz Khurmatu and

Behruz Gelali, a PUK spokesman, is quoted by the Turkish media 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 that the
violence may have been started by terrorists trying to foment discontent
between Kurds and Turkomans. But Arkij says that 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 US
ambassador to Iraq, says that it is possible that the bomb blast in Tuz
Khurmatu was an attack by supporters of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam. "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 that the violence was
not instigated by either foreign terrorists or the remnants of Saddam'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

"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 US-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 US position on
Kurdish peshmerga fighters - a position stemming from Kurdish support for
the US 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 US troops to invade
northern Iraq from Turkish territory during the spring offensive. And
although the US has asked Turkey to deploy up to 10,000 soldiers to Iraq as
part of a US-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 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.

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