Jan 17, 2007

Iraqi Turkmen: UN Warns of Looming Crisis

UN report warns of rising ethnic tensions in Iraq’s northern regions, a prelude to a potential crisis in the city of Kirkuk.

Below is an article written by Mark Tran and published by The Guardian;

The deteriorating human rights situation in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq could be a prelude to a looming crisis in the Kurdish region, the UN warned today.

In its bi-monthly human rights report on Iraq, the UN voiced concerns at reports of mistreatment of ethnic Turkmen and Arabs by the Kurdish majority.

"They face increasing threats, intimidations and detentions, often in KRG (Kurdish regional government) facilities run by Kurdish intelligence and security forces," the report said. "Such violations may well be the prelude of a looming crisis in Kirkuk in the coming months."

While media attention has focused on Baghdad, which accounts for most of Iraq's bloodletting, Kirkuk could be lurching towards its own mini-crisis.

Kirkuk, an ancient city once part of the Ottoman empire, has a large minority of ethnic Turks as well as Christians, Shias and Sunnis, Armenians and Assyrians. The city lies just south of the autonomous Kurdish region stretching across Iraq's north-east.

Under Iraq's new constitution, a local referendum is to be held this year to determine whether Kirkuk should join the Kurdistan regional confederacy (the united administration of Irbil, Dohuk and Sulaimaniya provinces). Because of its oil wealth, the Kurds covet the city and want it to become their regional capital.

It is a prospect that horrifies Turkey, which fears that a strong Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq with Kirkuk's oil wealth would galvanise separatist Kurdish guerrillas in Turkey who have been fighting since 1984 for autonomy.

Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, today warned Iraqi Kurdish groups against trying to seize control of Kirkuk. He said Turkey would not stand by amid growing ethnic tensions, prompting accusations of interference by Iraqi Kurds.

The Kurdish coalition bloc in the Iraqi parliament today read a statement during a session accusing Turkey of interfering in Iraqi affairs. "As we condemn this interference in Iraqi affairs by the Turkish government, we call upon the parliament to issue a statement condemning them as well," the coalition bloc said.

But Mr Erdogan this week reminded the Kurds that Turkey sheltered more than 500,000 Iraqi Kurdish refugees who escaped Iraq's ruthless campaign following a failed Kurdish insurgency in early 1991.

"Turkey did not remain indifferent to the plight of Kurdish peshmergas who were escaping oppression and death," he said. "Today, it will not remain indifferent to the Turkmens, Arabs ... in Kirkuk."

Military intervention by Turkey, a Nato ally of the US in northern Iraq, is unlikely, but Ankara could apply economic pressure as potential oil exports from Kirkuk have to go overland through Turkey.

Today's UN report said Kirkuk is heavily controlled by security forces and Kurdish militias - or peshmergas - who exercise to a large degree effective control of the city. Most senior official positions are occupied by Kurds or their allies from other ethnic groups.

Under Saddam Hussein, Baghdad imposed an "Arabisation" policy on Kirkuk, a massive social engineering project that drove many Kurds from their homes to be replaced by Arabs, mostly Shias from the south. Since the US invasion of 2003, many Kurds have returned and Turkmen and Arabs in the city now complain of reverse "ethnic cleansing".

"Even though violence is not on the same level as in Baghdad," the UN said, "ongoing human rights violations and the surge of violent acts which have significantly increased since 2003 are widely believed to be the doing of perpetrators and instigators from inside and outside Iraq and Kirkuk. Lately and due to the continuing insecurity, ethnic groups have moved closer to their own communities for protection."

With tension rising in Kirkuk, the referendum is shaping up to be a key moment for the Kurdish region. The Iraq Study Group, chaired by former secretary of state James Baker, warned last month in its report of the "great risk" of the referendum sparking further violence in Kirkuk and recommended postponing it for a year.

The Kurds would hardly welcome any such delay and might well annex the city precipitating a crisis with Turkey.