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Monday, Sep 01, 2003

Blast, ethnic tensions break relative peace in diverse Kirkuk

Chicago Tribune

KIRKUK, Iraq - A small explosion on a stony ridge miles outside this northern Iraqi city was all it took to shatter a month of painstaking steps toward democratic reform.

Now American forces and a battalion of civilian leaders from Kirkuk and the village of Tuz Khurmatu, where the blast took place, are meeting day and night to try to mend fissures between seething Kurds and Turkmen, two important ethnic groups in a region viewed as key to the post-war stability of Iraq.

The explosion late last month in Tuz, as the village is known, blew out a single brick wall of a small shrine honoring Imam Ali Zain Abeddine, a Shiite holy man especially revered by Turkmen in the region.

But the blast fractured a fragile peace between Turkmen and Kurds, who are among the groups Turkmen blame for the explosion, and quickly led to ethnic riots that killed 13 people, exposing yet another peril facing U.S. occupation troops struggling to bring order to this restive and dangerous country: the risk of internecine fighting among Iraqi ethnic minorities.

The potential splintering of Iraq along ethnic lines ranked high on the list of fears of Middle East experts when President Bush decided to topple Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Suddenly freed from decades of Hussein's ironclad repression, the experts worried, Iraq's Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs and Sunni and Shiite Muslims would fall to fighting one another to gain political and economic advantage.

That danger had seemed to pass - until last month's unrest in Tuz.

Following the shrine explosion, deadly confrontations broke out in Tuz on Aug. 22. A demonstration in Kirkuk, a city of 1 million that is an important oil center, ended in bloodshed.

The last week in Kirkuk has been a fractious time of finger-pointing. The Turkmen allege that Kurds or Arabs from the old regime blew up the shrine as an intentional affront to their Shiite religion. Kurds talk ominously about the supposedly divided loyalties of the Turkmen, and contend that the shrine was targeted by Shiite agitators from Iran or agents from Turkey.

U.S. officials are reluctant to credit any of the conspiracy theories. There is no proof of outside forces playing a role in the shrine blast or in any incident in the north since the fall of the Hussein regime, according to the U.S. military commander responsible for Kirkuk.

"There's a whole lot of questions that have to be answered before I get excited about who says what," said Army Col. William Mayville of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, who has been heading reconstruction efforts in Kirkuk.

"Every incident so far has turned out to be something that started local," Mayville said. "Within days of an incident, I usually find the shooters, I find the caches and I find out that the problem, typically, starts from people who had something to lose" in the regime change.

Mayville said he has tried some problem-solving among the factions. First, he urged the mayor of Kirkuk to take to the airwaves - on BBC and CNN - to accept responsibility for dealing with the issue. Then he held meetings with Kurds and Turkmen to hear their grievances.

At one point, he tried soothing the wounds with cash - handing out $1,200 to the Turkmen to rebuild the shrine.

"Thirteen people killed, that's huge," Mayville said. "But that said, I think this is on the road to healing itself. …They will learn from this and, from all our meetings, there will be a mechanism in place to solve the next problem."

No one expected things to be easy in post-war Kirkuk. After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the city was beset by massacres and revenge killings. Under Saddam, Kirkuk's ethnic mix made it a target for brutal retribution, especially against the Kurds, the most vocal opponents of the regime.

But the coalition forces were surprised to find enough residual goodwill among a new generation of Turkmen, Assyrians, Kurds and Arabs to work toward some kind of democratic representation.

By May, Kirkuk managed to form a government of 24 members, six from each of the four ethnic groups, although that progress came with some controversy: Turkmen parties disputed the distribution and the Americans had to recalculate the council seats.

"I can say that people are trying," said Irfan Kirkukly, a leader of the Turkmen People's Party who serves as an assistant mayor and has been in charge of ridding local ministries of Sadadam loyalists.

"For the last five months, the situation has been fairly stable," he added. "Now something is happening to try to destabilize us. People are saying there are dirty hands, trying to cause us problems. What I know is that people here want very much to have peace."

Nevertheless, there were distinct tensions before the shrine explosion, often characterized by jealousy of the Kurds, who established their own semi-autonomous government in the north during the 1990s under protection of patrols by U.S. and British jets.

The Kurds have a long history with the American military, having first cooperated with the U.S. during the 1991 war. The two main Kurdish political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, have been reaping the benefits of that close relationship, advising American forces as they began setting up provisional local governments in the north.

"The coalition forces listen to us but they don't do anything to really help us with top jobs," said Ali Hashim Nouri, head of the Turkmen Front in Tuz. "And the Kurds are just so proud and they boast that they are part of the coalition, too. We consider ourselves friends of the Americans, and we want the same treatment."

The Kurds offer something that no other ethnic group can - practical experience in forming new governments. But that has led to suspicions from other ethnic groups that the Kurds are dominating the available positions.

The Turkmen groups have argued, for example, that they are not fairly represented in the new police forces in Kirkuk and Tuz. Positions in the health and education ministries also have not been shared equitably, the Turkmen contend.

"The statistics don't support what they are saying, but that doesn't matter," said Mayville. "It's the perception, and we have to see what we can do about it."

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