Unrest Worsens in Northern Iraq

The U.S. military reports an escalation in violence in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk. Three ethnic groups are competing for control of the city, which sits near oil fields that are believed to hold some 40 percent of Iraq's exportable oil and natural gas.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION. From NPR News, I'm Linda Wertheimer. The U.S. military reports an escalation in violence in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk. Three ethnic groups, Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen are competing for control of the city. Kirkuk sits near oil fields that are believed to hold some 40 percent of Iraq's exportable oil and natural gas. The U.S. military says the situation has deteriorated since local Kurdish factions won big in last December's Parliamentary elections.

NPR's Ivan Watson recently traveled to Kirkuk.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

Nearly three years ago, Mati Hana(ph) agreed to the U.S. invasion with optimism. In this interview, recorded in April of 2003, the former Iraqi oil company employee hoped the American troops would bring an end to years of Saddam Hussein's racist policies in Kirkuk.

Mr. MATI HANA (Former Iraqi Oil Company Employee): Because they are outsiders, they will treat everyone fairly, no matter of being Arab, being Kurd, being Turkmen, or being an Assyrian or Kurdian.

WATSON: But today, speaking at his son's apartment, Hana, a Chaldean Christian, says he's trying to get his family out of the country.

Mr. HANA: It's horrible. It's horribly, terribly bloody. You don't imagine.

WATSON: Hana says there's an underground civil war underway in Kirkuk between the city's three largest ethnic groups, the Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, that's left the city's tiny Christian minority caught in the middle.

Mr. HANA: As they said, there's something placed on top of volcano. Anytime it might burst out. It's racial (unintelligible) racial.

WATSON: Since April of 2003, the U.S. military has tried to keep a lid on the growing ethnic tensions here. And for a long time Kirkuk was one of Iraq's more peaceful cities. But since parliamentary elections were held last December, Major Greg Ford, an Army intelligence officer, says he's seen a sudden spike in the violence, targeting members of all of the main ethnic groups.

Major GREG FORD (U.S. Army Intelligence): Just for this past month in January, there's 25 either assassinations or assassination attempts. The primary method usually is actually small arms fire, either a drive by shooting or a focused attack against a person.

WATSON: The multi-ethnic mosaic in Kirkuk is a legacy of its days as a crossroads during the Ottoman Empire. It was the discovery of oil deposits here after World War I that turned this small city into a geopolitical prize. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, Arab nationalist governments in Baghdad cemented their control over Kirkuk through a form of ethnic cleansing that became known as Arabization.

It involved the force of deportation of tens of thousands of Kurds and Turkmen and they were replaced with heavily subsidized Arab settlers from southern Iraq. Non Arabs were permitted from holding top jobs in the local government and the oil company and denied the right to purchase land or houses.

The toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 overturned that system. Kurdish militia men swept in from the mountains of semi-autonomous Kurdistan in Northern Iraq and quickly laid claim to the city demanding it be annexed to nearby Kurdistan.

Today Kurds are building sprawling new neighborhoods like this one, on the edges of the city. Part of a trend that some residents are calling the Kurdification of Kirkuk. Just across the road from the flickering gas, flares of Kirkuk's northern oil company, Fatah Talfig(ph), Mohammad(ph) and his son Sabaj(ph) spread mortar on to the cinder block foundation of their new home.

Dressed in a turban and traditional Kurdish baggy pants, Mohammad said in 1987, soldiers bulldozed his house and shipped his family out of the province in trucks.

Mr. FATAH TALFIG MOHAMMAD (Resident, Kirkuk): (Foreign language spoken)

WATSON: God willing, Mohammad said, Kirkuk will one day become part of an independent Kurdistan.

Mr. MOHAMMAD: (Foreign language spoken)

Major FORD: The last census it was roughly 33 percent among Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen. Now my best guess is probably 50 percent Kurd.

WATSON: At the U.S. Air Base in Kirkuk, Major Greg Ford says Kurds now dominate the city, controlling top positions in the local government and security forces. And although the Kurdish leadership is not calling for independence, Ford says control of Kirkuk's oil would make the Kurdish dream of an independent state a possibility.

Major FORD: If they were to get the 40 percent of Iraq's oil, it does allow the Kurdish nation a possibly its own nation now because they have their own source of funding, ability to generate income.

WATSON: This has alarmed local Arabs and Turkmen who have their own historic claims to the city.

Mr. YASSER ABULLAH KADR(ph) (Iraqi Turkmen Front) The view of the cities from (unintelligible), everyone from Kirkuk, if you ask him he can talk Turkmen.

WATSON: Yassar Abdullah Kadr is head of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, which only won 14 percent of Kirkuk's vote in the last elections. Kadr says the Kurdish faction cheated by bussing in thousands of Kurds from neighboring provinces for the vote. And he says there's been an upsurge in attacks against Turkmen residents over the last two months.

Mr. KADR: 42 from 45, it was Turkmens. They have been kidnapped and some of them has been killed, and the other paid money.

WATSON: Amid the daily car bombings, assassinations and kidnapping, it's hard to tell ethnically motivated attacks from insurgent strikes from common street crimes. But the U.S. military has seen ominous signs over the past month. Again, Major Greg Ford.

Major FORD: We found the flyer being distributed in the city of Kirkuk that references telling the Turkmen in the city to arm themselves and attack the Kurdish forces, the Kurdish people, as well as anyone who helps coalition forces.

WATSON: In the past, one great hope of U.S. officials here was to create a Property Claims Commission to resolve thousands of disputes over confiscated lands and homes. Tahsin Hamid, the Kurdish director of the commission in Kirkuk, says most of the over 17,000 claims he has received so far involved deported Kurds. Of these, Hamid says, only 50 cases have made it past officials in the court of appeals in Baghdad.

Mr. TAHSIN HAMID (Director, Property Claims Commission): They're not happy if Kirkuk is joined to Kurdistan because they are Baathist, and they are Arabs and Baathist.

WATSON: Locals say many Arabs here have sold their houses and moved south, while some other Arabs are accused of having joined the insurgency. Meanwhile, back at his son's apartment, Mati Hana is playing with his granddaughter. The 64-year-old Chaldean Christian, who once welcomed the U.S. occupation, is alarmed by the growing ethnic divide here. He says two of his sons have lost jobs because they were not Kurdish. His son, Martin, says the school system was recently segregated into separate Kurdish, Turkmen, Arabic and Assyrian language schools.

Mr. HANA: It's very crazy to separate the children. So, another five years, he will be separated from the other communities. It will be communities.

WATSON: The final status of Kirkuk has yet to be determined. Iraq's new constitution calls for a referendum to be completed by 2007 that will allow residents to choose whether or not Kirkuk should join Kurdistan or stay with Baghdad.

Ivan Watson, NPR News. ...

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