In Iraq's north, fears that disorder could spur ethnic strife

Over the weekend, US troops began securing Kirkuk, allaying Turkish concerns.

The night Kirkuk fell, a man named Natham Arif died. He was an ethnic Turkmen.

The Iraqi Turkmen Front, a political group representing Iraq's third-largest ethnicity, says Mr. Arif was one of at least seven Turkmen killed by Kurds, who took control of the city last week. The group says the deaths and lootings that followed Kirkuk's fall are evidence that Kurds are targeting the city's vulnerable Turkmens in the wake of the Iraqi regime's disintegration.

"If the situation will be like this, it will develop into a battle between us and the Kurds. We've decided to resist anyone who will try to hurt us," says Mustafa Kemal Yaycili, chairman of the Turkmen Front, who recently returned from London where he had been living in exile.

Stories and statements like these are potentially explosive in Iraq's volatile north. Neighboring Turkey has longed viewed a Kurdish seizure of Kirkuk as a threat. The city's rich oil fields might make the concept of an independent Kurdistan economically viable and spur separatist demands by Turkey's own large Kurdish population. Now Turkey is also concerned about the well-being of Iraq's Turkmens, with whom Turks share ethnic, historical, and linguistic ties.

But residents here have seen little if any of this alleged ethnic violence, and some here are worried that outsiders may be trying to stir up resentment among northern Iraq's different ethnic groups.

While most newspapers around the world recorded a day of joy exhibited by citizens when Kirkuk fell Thursday, many of Turkey's newspapers reported a day of tragedy. According to front-page stories, Kurds looted and burned government offices containing land and property deeds in a deliberate attempt to erase evidence of Turkmen ownership in the city. At least 20 Turkmen were reported to have been killed.

Against this backdrop, Turkey threatened to send in troops to northern Iraq Thursday after Kurdish pesh merga fighters flooded into the city; the BBC aired what it said was secretly filmed footage of Turkish troops amassed at the border.

But Secretary of State Colin Powell promptly stepped in with a compromise solution, leading to the withdrawal of Kurdish forces over the weekend in exchange for Turkey sending 15 observers into the north.

Some semblance of order had returned to Kirkuk Sunday following looting that gutted government offices, as well as telephone, water, and electrical utilities. The crime spree has also targeted stores, homes, and cars.

By the time US soldiers began patrolling the downtown area Saturday night, Arif's sand and gravel business was looted, and some 40 cars in their neighborhood were stolen.

A car was all the gunmen were after when they came to Arif's house at around 1 a.m. Friday. Arif's widow doesn't believe they were targeted because he was a Turkmen. She was there, and she happens to be a Kurd.

"They banged on the door. I asked who it was and they said, 'Your friends,' " recalls Sonya Mohammed Saleh, who sat in tears Sunday, surrounded by mourners at the Arif family home. She went to the window and saw four men in a Volkswagen. "We want to talk to you," they said. The gunmen, she says, hoped to get her husband to open the door to their relatively large gated home so they could steal the car.

Amid the stress and shouting, her husband collapsed. He was not murdered, she says.

Arif's brother, Fadel Arif, says it is wrong to characterize the crime wave as anti-Turkmen. He, like his brother, is also married to a Kurd - intermarriage here is common.

"There is no hatred between us, but if they come here and destroy my house and factory, I will find hate for them," he says. But he insists that the problem is that people came here from the autonomous Kurdish areas "to make Ali Baba," as he calls the stealing spree, not to attack Turkmens. Anyone who claims otherwise is either misinformed or stirring up ethnic tensions, he says.

"We're the ones who have been living here all this time, so we should know," he says.

To be sure, there are ethnic tensions coursing through the city. Chaos errupted Sunday evening when the body of a 12-year-old Turkmen boy was paraded atop a car by Turkmen activists. The Turkmens say the boy was shot in the head while he was standing in front of the Iraqi Turkmen Front building downtown.

But Kurdish sources said he had been shot by random gunfire while traveling in a car on the road to Baghdad and that his body was being displayed to incite tensions.

"We will bring the Turkish Army to keep the peace in Kirkuk," the throng was shouting, according to a translator for Human Rights Watch, an international monitoring body.

The events punctured the gradual calming of tensions in the city, and Turkmen activists said would hold a protest Monday.

The leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Jalal Talibani, has tried to calm unrest here. Visiting over the weekend, he announced the establishment of an interim governing committee, to include an equal number of Kurds, Turkmen, and Arabs. He also encouraged people to get back to work and school as soon as possible.

Guards standing outside the city's land registry say the looters took everything of value, but they did not steal or burn records.

In fact, many Turkmen here argue that it would be hard to find any evidence of Turkmen property in the Baath Party archives. Turkmens and Kurds alike were widely discriminated against under Saddam Hussein's regime. Many say they were not allowed to buy houses or hold any property unless they changed their identity to "Arab," part of the Baath party's Arabization policy. The aim: to decrease the numbers of Turkmens and Kurds in oil-rich Kirkuk.

Many played along, feeling they had no choice. "I felt very bad about it," says a man named Omar, who filled out a form changing his identity from Turkmen to Arab. "How can you ask someone to change their essence? They made Kirkuk like a big prison."

He, like many others interviewed here, says Kurds and Turkmen lived under a common oppressor, which made them more friendly with each other than outsiders would expect. Omar, afraid to give his last name, says he hasn't heard of any Turkmens being murdered. "If something like that did happen to someone, than maybe he was a member of the Arab Baath Party and was killed for that, not because he's a Turkmen."

Looting turns to violence between Kurds, Arabs

MOSUL, IRAQ - His weekend in Mosul, the looting turned to killing.

Kurds and Arabs fought each other in a city without order, leaving perhaps two dozen people dead, although precise numbers were impossible to obtain. The chaos followed the pullout of Iraqi forces and authorities late last week and the absence of any new force to take control.

The flash of bloodletting in Iraq's third-largest city - which seemed to derive both from the chaotic atmosphere and longstanding ethnic tensions - suggests that it will not take much in some Iraqi communities for the theft of property to degenerate into the taking of lives.

Standing in the emergency bay of the Republican Hospital here on Saturday, Walid Haderi, an Arab Iraqi, was shouting with rage as ambulances brought in the dead and wounded. The Kurdish militiamen in the city "took every new car," he yells. "They killed everyone."

Kurds and Arabs have sometimes clashed in Iraq. In the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, the Iraqi government has long sought to "Arabize" the oil-rich region by evicting Kurds, Turkmens, and other groups and replacing them with Iraqi Arabs. This is one reason why Arabs in these cities fear what "liberation" will mean, particularly if it is accompanied by the heavy-handed presence of Kurdish political parties.

A doctor at the hospital counted four dead civilians and scores of injuries on Saturday and more than 100 civilian casualties - including an undetermined number of dead - the day before.

But even as Mr. Haderi shouted, small groups of the several hundred US troops newly deployed in the city were mounting some of their first patrols. The local US commander, Lt. Col. Robert Waltemeyer, was working to have local leaders participate in appeals for calm and the reestablishment of municipal governance. He imposed a 10 p.m. to 6 p.m. curfew.

One Muslim preacher, Tariq Hamdoun, said Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani, whose militiamen vastly outnumber the US troops on the streets in Mosul, had issued a shoot-on-sight order against looters and those engaged in violence. Mr. Hamdoun and other religious leaders made appeals for calm from loudspeakers and pulpits and local residents took up arms to protect their neighborhoods.

By Sunday afternoon, the violence and disorder seemed to be abating, though one US soldier was injured when a gunshot penetrated his vehicle.

Some of the people at the hospital Saturday were more disgusted than calmed by the US show of force. "I blame the US for the entire situation," said Zaid al-Tahi, a physician in the intensive care unit. "The US pushed in the [Kurdish militias]."

Others were more resentful at the US officials for not deploying forces in sufficient numbers to control the city. "If they leave the situation as it is we will not forget, as we do not forget 35 years of oppression," warned Mr. Hamdoun, the preacher, referring to the tenure of Hussein's Baath Party.

"The stealing and conflict are not really [the result of people battling over the fate] of country," he said. "They're fighting over stolen property."

- Cameron W. Barr

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to In Iraq's north, fears that disorder could spur ethnic strife
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today