Mounting ethnic violence in northern Iraq worries U.S.

Thursday, January 8, 2004

BAGHDAD The United States is concerned by signs of increasing ethnic violence in northern Iraq.

The violence pits Kurdish militias against Turkmens and Arabs in the Kirkuk area. U.S. officials acknowledge that the ethnic clashes represent the start of a power struggle in the Kurdish zone, which has been autonomous since the 1991 Gulf war.

Seven people have been killed over the last week in attacks in Kirkuk, the oil capital of northern Iraq, Middle East Newsline reported.

Arabs and Turkmens have opposed a Kurdish demand for Iraq to grant autonomy to three provinces in the north that would include Kirkuk. The Kurdish plan was discussed during a weekend visit to Irbil by the U.S. administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, and his British deputy, Sir Jeremy Greenstock.

So far, U.S. officials have tried to portary the ethnic clashes as the exception rather than the rule. But they acknowledge that the violence could intensify with the approach of the June 30 deadline for Iraqi self-rule.

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"We have been struck by the limited number of internecine, regional or interethnic attacks since liberation," Coalition Provisional Authority senior adviser Dan Senor said. "We really think this is just an exception, not part of a larger trend. But we will monitor it."

The Bush administration has decided not to alter the current state of Kurdish autonomy. Officials said they would leave a decision regarding the status of northern Iraq to any future government in Baghdad.

Still, the fate of northern Iraq could lead to an increasingly violent power struggle in the region that would involve such neighbors as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey. Over the weekend, U.S. troops from the army's 4th Infantry Division raided the offices of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in Kirkuk, a city of more than one million people and which contains large Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen communities.

"Although Arabs and Turkmens form the majority in Kirkuk, they claimed that Kirkuk was an Iraqi city," the Iraqi Turkmen Front said. "But groups opposing us showed their real aims by their aggressive attitude. It is clear that they were neither in favor of a democratic Iraq nor of federal state based on the equality of ethnic groups."

Arab diplomatic sources said Turkey has supported the Turkmen community against the Kurds. They said Turkey has warned the United States that the Kurds were trying to change the demography of Kirkuk and that this could prompt an Arab backlash.

"Interference in the city's demographic structure could lead to very dangerous consequences," Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul was quoted by the Ankara-based Milliyet daily as telling U.S. Secretary of State Powell on Dec. 14. "If the necessary sensitivity isn't shown during these preparations, a new Arab revenge could rise in the Middle East."

Kurdish militias were also said to have grown more powerful since the ouster of the Saddam Hussein regime in April 2003. The sources said that while Kurds have been the most reliable of U.S. allies in northern Iraq, the Kurds have been stockpiling weapons from arsenals of the former Iraqi army. The militias have earned revenues from their trade in captured Iraqi military hardware, including tanks and artillery pieces, the sources said. In some case, they said, Iran has bought the weaponry.

At the same time, Sunni insurgents have increased their attacks on Irbil and other parts of the Kurdish zone. KDP chief Masoud Barazani said the attacks, which he said were carried out by Ansar Al Islam and Al Qaida, comprise a warning to Kurds not to cooperate with the United States.

"This is a threatening message to the Kurdistan regional government and Kurdish people not to cooperate with the United States," Barazani, who is also a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, told the London-based A-Sharq Al Awsat on Tuesday. "But there is no future for terrorism, particularly in Kurdistan."

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