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Before Iraq election, Arab and Kurd tensions soar in the north

Ahead of the March 7 Iraq election, tensions between Arabs and Kurds are soaring after an incident involving Kurdish troops and forces loyal to the Arab governor of Ninevah. Kurdish President Massoud Barzani told the Monitor that a warrant will soon be issued for the governor's arrest on a kidnapping charge.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent / March 1, 2010

Supporters display a picture of Massoud Barzani, the president of semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan during a sand storm at a celebration ahead of March 7 Iraq election in Kirkuk, 150 miles north of Baghdad, February 23.

Ako Rasheed/Reuters

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Salahadin, Iraq

In a sign of heightened Arab-Kurd tension along a disputed boundary just days from Iraq elections, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan says the governor of the adjoining Arab-majority province will be arrested if he enters Kurdish-controlled areas.

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In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor at his mountaintop headquarters in northern Iraq, Kurdish President Massoud Barzani described Ninevah governor Atheel al-Nujaifi as a "criminal" and said a warrant would be issued for his arrest in connection with an incident this month involving US forces.

He also said Nujaifi had failed to secure the provincial capital of Mosul. Mr. Barzani offered to bring up to 2,000 Christian university students from the troubled city to Kurdistan to continue their studies. At least eight Christians have been killed in the last two weeks in Mosul in the latest wave of attacks on minorities.

“To us he is a criminal because he has kidnapped our own people and according to the judicial system there must be an order to arrest him,” Mr. Barzani said in the interview Monday. He said a warrant would be issued by a municipal court in Talkeef, the site of a incident last month that shook US attempts to normalize relations between Kurdish and Arab forces along the hundreds of miles of disputed internal borders.

Nujaifi did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails for comment in recent days. The local press reported Nujaifi has accused Kurdish forces of kidnapping Iraqi government forces in the incident. Detainees on both sides were freed in a prisoner exchange over the weekend.

As the country heads into national elections, followed by months of instability as a new government is formed, US officials describe Arab-Kurdish tension and its potential to flare into violence as one of their top concerns in Iraq. US military officials also worry that Al Qaeda in Iraq and other groups have exploited the gaps along the lines of control between security forces that at best do not coordinate with each other and at worst are hostile to each other.

Trouble in Talkeef

After months of negotiations with Iraqi government and Kurdish leaders, the US military started security co-ordination centers and joint checkpoints and patrols with US troops acting as a buffer between Iraqi government troops and Kurdish peshmerga forces.

The intent was to build confidence between Kurdish and Arab forces and their leaders. Instead, in one of their first major tests, US forces two weeks ago escorted the controversial Mosul governor into the town of Takleef – a Kurdish-controlled town within Ninevah province. The result was the governor alleging an assassination attempt, the arrests of Kurdish forces by the governor’s troops, retaliatory arrests of Iraqi forces by the Kurds, and temporary suspension of joint patrols and checkpoints in the province. The Kurdish government also withdrew peshmerga from joint training in protest.

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