Kurds Reportedly Abduct Iraqis, Turks
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
In the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, Kurdish police have been seizing hundreds of minority Arabs and Turkomans and secretly transferring them to Kurdish-controlled prisons. It's a practice some in the community call political kidnapping. According to a story in today's Washington Post, some of these abductions have been carried out with the knowledge of US forces and at times, with US participation. A confidential State Department cable obtained by The Washington Post calls these extrajudicial detentions. The cable says they're part of an effort by Kurdish political parties to exercise authority in Kirkuk in an increasingly provocative manner. Anthony Shadid wrote the story along with his colleague Steve Fainaru.
And, Anthony Shadid, who are these men who are being detained?
Mr. ANTHONY SHADID (The Washington Post): Well, in the beginning of the campaign, it was often former Baathist officials and suspected insurgents who were picked up in these abductions. Over the past four months since the January 30th election, the campaign has broadened. It's come to include car merchants, Arab tribesman, soldiers, family, some people that people aren't exactly sure what the motivation was to take them in the first place.
BLOCK: Now you're referring to these as abductions. Why are they not arrests, simple detentions?
Mr. SHADID: Well, that's a good question. In fact, US forces, when they learned about this practice, went to judges in the city of Kirkuk and asked them, `Hey, is this a legal procedure, in other words, to take somebody off the streets and then transfer them from Kirkuk to cities in northern Iraq that are controlled by the Kurdish party?' The US officials were told that it's not legal, that it's actually an illegal practice. The police chief himself in Kirkuk, called them political kidnappings. He believes some of his own police are actually involved in these transfers, in other words, taking them from Kirkuk and moving them to prisons in the north where often months will go by without their families hearing from them.
BLOCK: Let's talk about this question of alleged US involvement in these raids and seizures. That seems to be under some dispute. What did people there tell you about that?
Mr. SHADID: Well, among the Arabs and Turkoman, both of them minorities in this city, see US complicity in this practice or actually US involvement in the practice. And, of course, US officials dispute that point. The view of Arabs and Turkomans there of US involvement is because often, these people will be picked up in joint US-Iraqi raids then turned over to police, and astute commanders within the police will then ship them off to the north.
Now US officials, on the record, say that when they learned of this practice, they absolutely stopped and, in fact, they went as far as to present a list of 42 names to Kurdish officials, demanding that these people be released. And many of them were, in fact, released. It's a touchy situation, though. Even though the US officials knew that these abductions were going on, they continued to cooperate with the very units involved in the abductions and see them as their closest allies in fighting an insurgency in Kirkuk. And it runs into this issue that bedevils, I think, the US military in a lot of areas in the country, and that is trying to fight an insurgency while upholding the rule of law. And those don't always necessarily intersect all that well.
BLOCK: You did talk to several people there, including at least one US military officer who told you that the prisoners were being transferred to Kurdish jails to ease crowding in Kirkuk jails. Does that make sense?
Mr. SHADID: That's right. That's a point that some US officials told us as well as the Kurdish parties, that it was a simple procedure. They were moving people out of Kirkuk because it was too crowded and moving them to jails in Irbil and Suleimaniyah, where there was more room. Well, we found that was not necessarily the case.
In fact, I talked to an inmate that was released last week from the jail in Irbil. He describes pretty bleak conditions in the prison. He was in a cell that was about 19 feet by nine feet. There were 30 people in that cell. It was actually fluctuated from 45 to 55. And he described a situation in there where they had to alternate in shifts in order to just get through the day. In other words, half the inmates would sit cross-legged for three hours. The other half of the inmates would lay down and try to sleep. They would both take three hours doing it one way, three hours doing it the other throughout the day.
And there are some reports of torture. Beating is most common. We've also heard some instances that are a little more severe.
BLOCK: Anthony, help us understand the ethnic tensions and the history that this feeds into. This is a volatile region. Kirkuk would be highly desirable for Kurds who wanted to include it into the autonomous Kurdish region in the north.
Mr. SHADID: That's right. Kirkuk is probably the most volatile city in Iraq because of its mix of politics and power and resources. Kirkuk sits on some of Iraq's biggest oil fields. It's a city of potentially great wealth. Under Saddam Hussein, many Kurds were forced out of Kirkuk, and Arabs were often brought in from the south of the country. There was an effort by Saddam Hussein's government to change the demography of Kirkuk, to make it a majority Arab city. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Kurds started returning to the city, and there's been a real effort by the Kurdish parties to try to create a Kurdish majority within the city. They see it as part of Kurdistan and want it as part of Kurdistan in northern Iraq. Arab and Turkoman are obviously fighting that, and they've created an alliance together to try to keep Kirkuk under the control of the central government in Baghdad.
BLOCK: Anthony Shadid, thanks very much.
Mr. SHADID: My pleasure.
BLOCK: Anthony Shadid of The Washington Post, speaking with us from Baghdad.
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