Security Standoff In Iraqi City

A dispute between two Iraqi security services is brewing in the eastern city of Khanaqin. A Kurdish group, loyal to the Kurdistan regional government, controls security into the city. Iraqi government troops are not being allowed to enter. The standoff has become so hostile that top Iraqi and U.S. military officials are trying to negotiate a solution.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Now to Iraq where there is trouble in a small city on the border with Iran. It's a city controlled by the Kurdish Peshmerga, who are loyal to the semiautonomous regional government in Kurdistan. The central government has sent in the Iraqi army to take over security in the town, but so far they're not being allowed in. That's created such a dispute that the town received some high-profile visitors last week, Iraq's defense minister and the U.S. military's second in command in Iraq. More now from NPR's Iraq correspondent, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro.

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LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Getting into Khanaqin is like entering another country. There are two different security checkpoints. The first is controlled by the Iraqi army, and the Iraqi national flag flies over it. Corporal Fajar Abdulamir(ph) is with the 5th Division, 19th Brigade of the Iraqi army.

Corporal FAJAR ABDULAMIR (5th Division, 19th Brigade, Iraqi Army): (Through Translator) The Kurds are our brothers, and we are all Iraqis. But the law is above everything. So if we receive orders to enter the city, we will do that even if we have to fight.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's actually the Kurdish Peshmerga, though, who determine who comes into Khanaqin. The two forces are less than a mile apart and can see each other, but they do not interact. Once inside Khanaqin, the Kurdish flag is the only one to be seen. Idres Hattat(ph) is a 26-year-old Kurdish soldier posted outside the city market. He only speaks Kurdish.

Mr. IDRES HATTAT (Soldier): (Through Translator) We will not leave Khanaqin. It's our legitimate right to be here. If it reaches the point when we need to fight with the Iraqi army, we will. And we will fight until death. This city is definitely part of Kurdistan.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The problem is it's not. Khanaqin is a disputed city that lies about 15 miles outside of the Kurdish provincial borders. As far as the Iraqi government is concerned, it falls under the province of Diyala's control. Last month, the Iraqi government sent the Iraqi army into Diyala province, one of the most restive in the country, to flush out al-Qaeda in Iraq. As part of that operation, the Iraqi national security forces tried to move into Khanaqin. But they were stopped by the Kurdish troops. Azhad Murse Ali(ph) cuts his baklava into small squares ready for selling at his pastry shop in central Khanaqin. A Kurd, Ali says he feels the Iraqi army should back down.

Mr. AZHAD MURSE ALI (Kurdish Baker): (Through Translator) It created tension, and of course it made people feel worried. It's true that the Iraqi army is a national army, but people here are afraid of them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Under Saddam Hussein, there was a program of forced Arab resettlement here. Arab families were moved into this area, displacing Kurds, in order to ensure Saddam's control over this border region. After the U.S. invasion, that process was reversed, and many Arab families were forced to leave. Ali says the now majority Kurdish population here worries that there may be an ulterior motive in the deployment of Iraqi troops to Khanaqin.

Mr. MURSE ALI: (Through Translator) People fear that the domination of the Arabs over the Kurds will happen all over again.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But these days, it's the Kurdish leadership that's been expanding its area of control since the U.S.-led invasion in towns, cities and villages outside of Kurdistan. It's been deploying Kurdish forces and bankrolling local governments. Many Arab-Iraqis suspect the Kurds are trying to get control over an ever-widening swath of land as a precursor to an eventual bid for independence. The Kurds deny it. It's a struggle over land, but also over money.

In Khanaqin, the nearby border crossing between Iraq and Iran was closed for years because the central government and the Kurdish leadership couldn't agree on how to split the customs revenues. The border crossing was recently reopened. But the dispute here has still escalated with the threat of a military confrontation over Khanaqin. Mohammed Mulla Hassan is the Kurdish mayor of Khanaqin. Over his desk hangs a picture of Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani and Iraq's Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani, surrounded by colored fairy lights. This was the message he delivered to Iraq's minister of defense last week when he came to try and resolve the standoff.

Mayor MOHAMMED MULLA HASSAN (Khanaqin): (Through Translator) Khanaqin is a Kurdish area. And it's true that Arabs and Turks are living in it. But geographically and historically, Khanaqin is a Kurdish city. We will not give up on even a small piece of this land.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: For now, Iraq's central government has backed down. It says it will leave its troops just outside Khanaqin. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Khanaqin.

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