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To Iraq now. Tensions are mounting between Arabs and ethnic Kurds. The leaders of the Kurdish region have told NPR that the two groups are closer to violent confrontation than at any point since 2003.

NPR's Quil Lawrence reports from the Kurdish capitol, Erbil.

QUIL LAWRENCE: Massoud Barzani is president of the Kurdistan region in Northern Iraq, which has been autonomous since 1991. The Kurds favored the American invasion in 2003 and have since participated fully in the Iraqi Central Government. But now, Barzani says, ethnic tension is driving the Kurds in Baghdad dangerously close to confrontation.

President MASSOUD BARZANI (Kurdistan Regional Government): (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Whoever wants to get ahead in Iraqi politics, says Barzani, does it by criticizing the Kurds.

Arab politicians accuse the Kurds of expanding into disputed territories along the border between Iraq and the Kurdish region, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni Arab member of parliament, says there is no trust between Kurdish and Arab politicians.

Mr. OSAMA AL-NUJAIFI: (Foreign language spoken)

LAWRENCE: Nujaifi complains that the Kurds treat Arab Iraq as a separate country with which they are competing. President Barzani says these problems can be resolved through dialogue, but he and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have not spoken for a year. During that year, the Iraqi army and the Kurdish defense forces have come close to shooting at each other on at least four occasions, according to the Kurdistan Region's Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani.

Mr. NECHIRVAN BARZANI (Prime Minister, Kurdistan Regional Government): (Through Translator) If it were not for the American army to be stationed between our forces and some of the areas between our forces and their forces, there would have been definitely confrontation.

LAWRENCE: Most recently, on June 28th, Nechirvan Barzani says, Iraqi army soldiers arrived in the mostly Kurdish town of Debaga, northwest of Kirkuk, at around 2:00 in the morning. Citizens filled the streets to prevent the Iraqi army from passing. And a mostly Kurdish division of the Iraqi army arrived and blocked the road, essentially putting Kurdish and Arab units of the same army on opposite ends of machine gun barrels. It took 24 hours to resolve the issue, and the Arab unit eventually withdrew.

U.S. Army spokesman, Major Derrick Cheng, confirmed the events. He said the Iraqi Arab troops were in transit toward Mosul, and that they eventually took a different route. What the Americans have described as a wrong turn looks to the Kurds like a deliberate provocation by Baghdad, and probably not the last, says Nechirvan Barzani.

Mr. N. BARZANI: (Through Translator) Our problem is that we do not realize or see any strong political will in Baghdad to solve this problem.

LAWRENCE: Barzani suspects this will not improve as Prime Minister Maliki begins his reelection campaign and tries to motivate Arab voters. Communication about confrontations like Debaga does not appear to be improving. Two officials from Maliki's office, as well as the Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman, denied any knowledge of the standoff.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Erbil, Iraq.

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