Friday, March 12, 2004

Kurds v. Turkmen

This is a lengthy excerpt from a commentary in the Daily Star (Lebanon). We - and I mean we newshounds and bloggers - pay too much attention to the Green Zone and not enough to what's going on out in the countryside.
Kirkuk, Iraq: Once united in opposition to Saddam Hussein’s brutal oppression against them, Iraq’s Shiites and Kurds now appear increasingly divided over how to share the spoils of the new Iraq.

And nowhere is that tension more apparent than in this oil-rich city in northern Iraq which many residents fear is close to exploding into violence between Kurds and the mainly Shiite Turkmen.

"We are sitting on a barrel of TNT, and it will take only one small flame to blow up the whole place. And I’m sure it’s going to happen," said Yehya Abdullah, owner of a shop which was looted by a Kurdish mob last week.

The long-simmering ethnic friction between the city’s Kurdish and Turkmen communities is taking on an ominous sectarian direction. Thousands of Shiite militiamen recently arrived here to protect their Turkmen and Arab co-religionists against Kurdish designs to incorporate Kirkuk into Kurdish controlled provinces in the north. ...

In Kirkuk, the unexpected split in the council has exacerbated the distrust between Kurds and the mainly Shiite Turkmen.

"The Shiites have no right to deny us our rights. Even if there’s a sea of blood, we won’t give up Kirkuk," said Najat Jumaa, 43, a shopkeeper in the city’s Kurdish district of Tebeh.

At the root of Kirkuk’s problems is the thorny question of who is the majority, and, therefore, who has the right to control the city ­ and its massive oil wealth. Kirkuk sits on northern Iraq’s largest oil field with 10 billion barrels in proven reserves.

The true demographic composition of this city vanished long ago in a Baathist legacy of manipulated census figures, deportations, mass resettlement programs and coerced identity changes. Still, Kurdish and Turkmen officials reel off numerous conflicting statistics and historical facts to back their respective claims. ...

With the removal of the Baathist regime, thousands of Kurds and Turkmen are returning to Kirkuk to lay claim to their former homes, deepening the city’s already complex demographics. A proposed census in the coming months may well put to rest the population dispute, but until then relations are likely to remain cold with Kurds and Turkmen continuing to accuse each other of attempting impose their will on the city.

And concern that those tensions will spill over into violence has grown with the arrival of several Shiite militias here in recent weeks.

They include the Army of the Mahdi, the militia of the youthful firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr; the Badr Brigades, the military wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq; Iraqi Hizbullah led by Abdel-Karim Mahoud al-Mohammedawi, a Marsh Arab from the south who sits on the Governing Council; and the Dawa party, Iraq’s oldest existing Shiite political organization.

At the beginning of the month some 2,000 armed militiamen and women from the Army of the Mahdi staged a march through Kirkuk. Some militants wore black in deference to the Shiite holy month of Muharram, while others were dressed in white to signify their willingness to become martyrs.

Kurds viewed the march as a provocative demonstration of Shiite force. The following day a mob of some 100 Kurds ransacked the headquarters of the Iraqi Turkmen Front and looted nearby shops owned by Turkmen and Arabs.

"It’s a bad sign and makes us uncomfortable," said the PUK’s Jawhar, referring to the Shiite march. "We are trying to build a new Iraqi Army, so why do we have to have this Army of the Mahdi. It creates worries for everyone." However, Shiite officials say they have no intention of clashing with the Kurds.

"We are Muslims and we have an army, and armies must march to show their strength. But we didn’t make the march against the Kurds," said Sayyed Abdel-Fatah al-Mussawi, the representative in Kirkuk for the youthful firebrand cleric Moqtada Sadr.

Mussawi said that the Army of the Mahdi includes Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen Shiites ­ and its numbers are growing. ...

Jassem Mohammed, a Shiite Turkmen who owns a roadside cigarette stall, said that he joined the Army of the Mahdi out of loyalty to Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, father of Moqtada who was killed by Saddam’s regime in 1999 and is widely revered by Iraqi Shiites.

"We have always lived peacefully with Arabs and Kurds in Kirkuk," he said. "But the outsiders are the ones making trouble now."

Outsiders? "The Kurds," he muttered, before looking over his shoulder.

Some Kurdish officials say that Iran is backing the Shiite presence in Kirkuk as a bulwark against Kurdish attempts to control the city. Iraq’s neighbors ­ Iran, Syria and Turkey ­ oppose Kurdish autonomy, fearing it will enflame their own sizeable Kurdish populations.

"It’s going to be bad here," said Mariwan Hamid, a 43-year-old Kurd.

"If the Turkmen insist on the Shiite militias, then the civil war will start in Kirkuk."
That last line is significant, partly because of what it actually says - and partly because I find it frightening how easy the talk of "civil war" has become in Iraq.

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