MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And now to Iraq, where it's been almost a year since American troops pulled out. The U.S. had hoped to leave a few thousand soldiers behind, but couldn't strike a deal with the Iraqi government. The fear was, without U.S. troops to mediate, lingering conflicts between Arabs and Kurds would escalate. Well, that fear now seems to be coming true.
NPR's Kelly McEvers sent this report from northern Iraq, where a small skirmish has sparked a major escalation.
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: So we're standing here, along a pretty major thoroughfare. We're about - what, 70 kilometers south of the city of Kirkuk. This area right here, Tuz Khurmatu, is where the trouble started a few days back. We're about to talk to a man who owns a restaurant here, where we're standing, and a bakery just up the road. He says he saw what happened.
ABBAS SAEED MOHAMMAD: (Speaking foreign language)
MCEVERS: The restaurant owner is Abbas Saeed Mohammad. He says the latest troubles between Arabs and Kurds started a little more than a week ago, when a carload of guys stopped for gas along this road, but refused to pay. The gas seller was a Kurd. The guys in the car were Arabs, who claimed to work for the federal police.
MOHAMMAD: (Through translator) And then one of the federal police took out his gun and pointed it at his head. They say, I'll shoot you dead if you ask for money.
MCEVERS: Kurdish bodyguards, posted on a roof nearby, saw the confrontation; and shot at the Arabs in the car.
MOHAMMAD: (Through translator) And - you know, everybody started to shoot, after the first bullet was shot...
MCEVERS: Ten people were injured, and one passerby was killed. In another place, this incident might have been contained. But this is the so-called disputed territory of Iraq, where Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen live side by side - not always happily. For months, Kurdish and Arab leaders have been sparring at the national level. The president of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani, tried - but failed - to oust Iraq's Arab prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, earlier this year. Then, Maliki's forces opened a command center for the central government's troops in the disputed territory. Kurds saw this as an encroachment, and answered back with threats of their own troop buildup. Then came the shooting at Tuz Khurmatu.
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MCEVERS: On our way into the town, we saw Arab troops - from Baghdad - heading into Kirkuk. And over the weekend, Kurdish officials released a video of their own tanks heading into Kirkuk, too.
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MCEVERS: At this press conference in Tuz Khurmatu, local officials - representing Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen - hold hands to show they're unified at the local level, and they don't want any trouble. But it seems that the local leaders have little say in the matter. Saad al Mutallabi is part of the ruling, Arab-dominated party in Baghdad. He says Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani is emboldened by the presence of oil and gas in Kurdistan; and by contracts with super-giants like Exxon Mobile.
SAAD AL-MUTALLABI: And the thing that he doesn't understand - that one artillery shell that lands close to Exxon Mobil, Exxon Mobil will leave the country.
MCEVERS: That sounds like a threat, I say.
AL-MUTALLABI: Well, if it's - I think Iraqi people will retaliate when they see that their national interest is at risk.
MCEVERS: The question is: Is all this tough talk from Arabs and Kurds real threats, or just bluster? Joost Hilterman, of the International Crisis Group, says it's mainly bluster. He says Kurdish leader Barzani has been emboldened by the oil contracts, but also by better ties with Iraq's neighbor Turkey. But he says Barzani still relies on Maliki's central government, for a chunk of Kurdistan's budget. And despite possible Kurdish gains in nearby Syria, Barzani's dream of an independent Kurdistan is still way off.
JOOST HILTERMAN: The Kurds will make progress in the current period. They can take advantage of the new opportunities created in the region - in Syria and in Iraq, and in Turkey. But I don't think that independence will be the result - at least, not now.
MCEVERS: Kurdish and Arab military leaders tentatively agreed today to pull their troops back to previous positions. But the restaurant owner back in Tuz Khurmatu, is not optimistic. It's not the politicians in high places who suffer from this war of words, he told us. It's us, the people on the ground.
Kelly McEvers, NPR News.
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