Violence Rises in Iraq’s Tense North

Posted in Iraq | 14-May-09 | Author: Campbell Robertson| Source: New York Times

An Iraqi police officer pulled a body from the scene of a car bombing in Kirkuk on Tuesday. The blast killed seven people.

BAGHDAD - Tensions flared in Iraq's volatile north on Tuesday with demonstrations in Mosul and a car bomb that killed 7 and wounded 18 in Kirkuk.

The bomber in Kirkuk rammed a car into a police patrol near the headquarters of the main Turkmen political party, said Lt. Col. Ghazi Mohammed Rasheed of the Iraqi police. The road where the attack occurred was the site of frequent attacks in 2006 and 2007.

"Lots of people remember this road bitterly," said Yusuf Mahmoud, who owns a small market nearby.

The attack occurred a day after a car bomb left three dead and eight wounded outside a Kirkuk mosque.

Kirkuk is the most contentious point on a tense ethnic fault line between Kurds and Arabs that stretches east from Syria and south along the Iranian border. Kurds stake a historical claim to a number of territories along the line where Saddam Hussein expelled Kurds and moved in Arabs. They say that the areas should belong to the semiautonomous province of Kurdistan, and they have been pressing for a constitutionally mandated referendum to decide their fate.

Kirkuk Province, which is home to Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens and Christians, contains substantial oil reserves. The United Nations recently released a report laying out several options for the province, including making it semiautonomous.

But conflict has threatened to boil over all across the north, particularly in Nineveh Province, where a Sunni Arab political bloc has recently come to power and frozen the once dominant Kurds out of political positions.

On Friday, Atheel al-Nujaifi, the newly installed Arab governor of Nineveh, was prevented by Kurdish security forces from attending a hot-air balloon festival in Bashiqa, a town in Nineveh that the Kurds claim as theirs.

The pesh merga, as the Kurdish forces are called, have been stationed in towns around Nineveh ever since the Americans brought them in to pacify the north in 2003, a presence that enrages Nineveh's Arab population and its new government.

On Tuesday, more than a thousand people, most of them from Arab tribes in Nineveh, gathered in front of the provincial government building in Mosul and in downtown Bashiqa demanding that Kurdish forces leave the province.

Khasro Goran, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party branch in Mosul, said that Bashiqa and other pro-Kurd towns did not recognize the authority of the current provincial government, and that the pesh merga had intervened to prevent the situation from turning violent.

"The pesh merga will not leave," he said. "They are in Kurdish areas to protect the citizens."

Also on Tuesday, the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group that includes Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the homegrown group that American intelligence officials say is led by foreigners, released a recording said to be from Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the group's top leader.

The Iraqi government said in April that it had arrested Mr. Baghdadi, though Americans have questioned whether he exists at all. The insurgent group first released a statement that appeared on extremist Web sites denying the arrest, and then put out the recording, in which the man claiming to be Mr. Baghdadi condemned the Iraqi government.

Sam Dagher and Atheer Kakan contributed reporting from Baghdad, and Iraqi employees of The New York Times from Mosul and Kirkuk.