Ethnic Violence Flares In Northern Iraq

Violence is down in most of Iraq. Yet, it still plagues areas north of Baghdad where the Kurdish and Arab populations intersect. And U.S. commanders are considering a troop increase there. The town of Jalawla is an increasingly tense region along Iraq's ethnic fault line.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep in Detroit.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne at NPR West. We know that bloodshed is down in most of Iraq, yet violence still plagues areas north of Baghdad, where the Kurdish and Arab populations intersect. In fact, U.S. commanders are considering increasing troops there. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports on this tense region along Iraq's ethnic fault line.

QUIL LAWRENCE: Foothills surround the town of Jalawla in the northeast of Diyala Province. Both Kurds and Arabs claim an historic link to the town, though ethnic cleansing during the former regime left Jalawla with an Arab majority.

Mohammed Rahim Rashid(ph) is at work building a new mosque in one of Jalawla's Kurdish neighborhoods. He remembers being evicted along with 1,500 Kurdish families in the 1970s. When Saddam Hussein's rule ended in 2003, Rashid was among the first to move back. Soon after that, Kurdish soldiers arrived in Jalawla to provide security.

Mr. MOHAMMED RAHIM RASHID: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: So long as the Kurdish soldiers were in charge, says Rashid, there were no explosions or car bombs. I felt safe, he says.

For five years, Jalawla was a de facto part of Kurdistan, the autonomous region in northern Iraq. But last summer Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered the Kurdish soldiers out, and replaced them with Arabs.

Mr. RASHID: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: With Maliki's troops, we're uneasy, says Rashid. It's like having the Baath Party back again, he says.

Kurds are harassed at checkpoints and afraid to go out at night. Violence increased in the city, including a suicide bomber who killed dozens of mourners at a Kurdish funeral just last month.

Arabs see it differently, says Abdul Monim al-Jaburi(ph), an Arab shopkeeper on Jalawla's main street.

Mr. ABDUL MONIM AL-JABURI: (Through translator) I'm a neutral person, but when the Iraq army came in here, they set things up well. Now, things are much better. Before, it was chaos.

LAWRENCE: But Jaburi was the only Arab in town who agreed to be recorded. Others implied they were afraid of the Kurdish secret police in Jalawla. Worse yet, Arabs and Kurds in Jalawla claim the new Arab police force is heavily infiltrated by insurgents. Even locals are afraid to travel the roads south of the city. And to the north, Kurdish soldiers run heavily fortified checkpoints. It's not clear which is more volatile - the insurgency or the ethnic tension.

Mr. BARHAM SALIH (Deputy Prime Minister, Iraq): Former regime loyalists and some of these extremists want to turn the conflict from one between the new Iraq and the extremists to one between Kurds and Arabs.

LAWRENCE: Barham Salih is Iraq's deputy prime minister. He's also a leading Kurdish politician. Salih admits that ethnic politics are at play. The Kurds claim that Jalawla should be part of their region. Prime Minister Maliki accuses the Kurds of grabbing land and undermining Iraq's sovereignty. Until the matter's settled, says Salih, it only helps the insurgents.

Mr. SALIH: We simply cannot allow the situation to continue where there are ambiguities. And we all have to remember the federal security services as well as the Kurdistan regional government security services. We should all be one in fighting the terrorists and the extremists who want to destabilize the situation there.

LAWRENCE: But heated rhetoric continues, and each side suspects the other will use the violence in Jalawla as an excuse to try settling the matter by force.

The U.S. military considers itself an ally of both sides in the conflict. And it's unclear just what American soldiers will do if those two allies come to blows.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Jalawla, Iraq.

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