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Kurds, Sunni Arabs Clash in North

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Kurds, Sunni Arabs Clash in North -- a Small Echo of Larger Dispute

A police station is seized to thwart a new Arab commander. Ethnic strife shows potential for violence as lawmakers contemplate federalism.

By Kim Murphy, Times Staff Writer

September 26, 2006



BAGHDAD — Kurdish militiamen seized a police station in northern Iraq on Monday to prevent its transfer to a new Sunni Arab commander, igniting a daylong standoff that echoed the parliament's continuing unease over territory-sharing in the final administrative map of Iraq.


The clash in the town of Jalawla underscored the potential for violence as parliament prepared to study the contentious issue of creating autonomous regions in this multiethnic and heavily armed nation.


ADVERTISEMENTThough most of the biggest political disputes are likely to center on the oilfields in the south, in largely Shiite Muslim areas, and the northern city of Kirkuk, another oil-rich area claimed by the Kurds, the clash in Jalawla marked an early warning of what many fear could be a turbulent battle for the frontiers of a future Kurdish zone.


Authorities said the former Kurdish police commander in Jalawla, who was recently removed from his job by the Diyala provincial council, arrived at the station Sunday night accompanied by a force of Kurdish armed men and laid siege.


The Kurdish forces opened fire at the police station with heavy machine guns and rocket launchers, police sources said, destroying three cars and finally entering the building. The new commander and his men were reportedly locked in a room, but police had only sporadic communication with the station through the day and did not know whether any officers had been injured or killed.


Authorities in the nearby regional police headquarters had established a command post and were preparing a plan to retake the station, police sources said, speaking on condition of anonymity.


Kurdish leaders say Jalawla, about 80 miles northeast of Baghdad, and about 20 miles from Iran, was primarily a Kurdish town years ago. Hundreds of Kurds were driven out during the 1980s by former President Saddam Hussein's Arabization campaign in northern Iraq.


Since then, Kurds have been pushing to include such lands within the boundaries of an officially designated and largely autonomous Kurdistan. Most prominent has been Kirkuk, the scene of violence this month when six bombs exploded and killed 24 people. More than 80 others were injured.


The regional parliament of Kurdistan on Sunday forwarded a draft constitution to the government in Baghdad that includes Kirkuk and other disputed areas within Kurdishcontrolled territories. As presently organized, the northern Kurds have their own president, taxing powers and militia, and exercise primary authority over natural resources, including oil and water. Many Shiites would like similar powers in the south.


Like Kirkuk, Jalawla today is a mixed city, with Arabs and Turkmens living alongside Kurds. The local council has insisted that the town, on the southern edge of the Kurdish-dominated north, remain part of the Diyala province and outside an eventual Kurdistan.


As the dispute has mounted in recent months, Arab residents have complained of harsh treatment at the hands of Kurdish militia forces. Those complaints were followed by the Kurdish police chief's ouster Sunday, setting the stage for the clash over the installation of the Arab police commander.


The broader scope of the debate was underway in Baghdad, meanwhile, as the parliament began setting up a committee to review the constitution in preparation for proposed legislation that could clear the way for semi-autonomous regions not only in Kurdistan but elsewhere in Iraq.


Sunni Muslim Arabs, who are concentrated in the resource-poor central and western regions, have sought to block the creation of more federated regions. They fear it will cut them off from oil revenue and splinter the country.


An agreement over the weekend put off a political crisis by calling for the constitutional review and a delay in creating any such regions for at least 18 months after any new federalism law is enacted.


But parliament deputies immediately broke into arguments Monday morning over the timing of the constitutional review. Kurdish deputies at one point walked out in the face of accusations from one lawmaker that Kurds had driven Arabs out of the northern city of Mosul.


The parliament ultimately agreed to the proportional composition of the review committee and was set to name its members today. Parliament speaker Mahmoud Mashadani, a Sunni Arab, urged lawmakers not to lose sight of the significance of the compromise on an issue that had threatened Iraq's 4-month-old national unity government.


"I think the agreement is like a gift presented by parliament to the Iraqi people for Ramadan," he said, referring to the Muslim holy month of fasting that began over the weekend.


A Shiite-sponsored federalism bill is scheduled for debate this week, but under the weekend agreement can't be implemented if it passes until at least 2008. Sunnis are hoping the constitutional review will produce amendments forestalling the federalism process or at least limiting the powers of autonomy granted to federal regions.


Meanwhile, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani warned that Iraq was prepared to "make trouble" with its neighbors if nations such as Iran, Turkey and Syria did not "stop interfering in our internal affairs."


In an interview with NPR's "Morning Edition" to be aired today, Talabani, a Kurd, said Iraq was prepared to support opposition groups in neighboring countries as a recourse for what he said was meddling in Iraq. Iran and Turkey each have sizable Kurdish minorities that have been pushing for increased self-determination.

If foreign governments continue to promote violence in Iraq, he said, "the Iraqi people will respond in the same way — we'll support the opposition of other countries [and] try to make trouble for them as they are doing for us…. Iraq can help opposing forces of our neighboring countries."


In other developments Monday:


• Another police station came under fire in the town of Musayyib. More than 15 mortar shells were lobbed at the Jurf Sakhar police station in the latest of many attacks challenging the control of central authorities.


• In Baghdad, a small bomb exploded under a parked car near a well-known pizzeria, followed by a bigger explosion a few moments later when police came to investigate. Three policemen were injured.


• In the ongoing trial to determine the responsibility of Hussein and some of his lieutenants for a violent campaign against Kurdish guerrillas and civilians in the 1980s, the defense team again boycotted the proceedings. Hussein, represented by stand-in defense lawyers appointed by the court, eventually was ejected from the courtroom.


On Sunday evening, the former mayor of Fallouja was gunned down with his 18-year-old son as they were driving in the eastern part of the city, where U.S. forces have battled heavy insurgent activity since the beginning of the war. Najm Abdallah had served as head of the city council after the killing of his predecessor by unidentified armed men.










Special correspondents Abdul Salam Medeni in Irbil, Iraq; and Faris Mahdawi in Diyala province; and a stringer in Fallouja contributed to this report.

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