In Iraq’s north, a battle for land

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Times Staff Writer

Far from the volatile Shiite rivalries that have shaken Baghdad and Basra, this city has been devastated by an epic struggle for land and power between Sunni Arabs and Kurds that has shattered the social fabric and could very well shape the future boundaries of northern Iraq.

Kurds say that they have been driven out of the city by Sunni Arab militants and criminal gangs, who have set off car bombs and kidnapped and killed members of their ethnic group. In turn, Kurdish forces have been accused of carrying out assassinations in Mosul and torturing Arab detainees elsewhere in the campaign to annex territory to the semiautonomous Kurdistan region.

The Iraqi government and U.S. military spokesmen blame the chaos on Al Qaeda in Iraq, a loosely organized Sunni Arab insurgent group, which desires to create a new base in the north. But the problems date to 2003, when the Kurds first sent fighters into Mosul, and the status of the city’s Arab elite was diminished.


“Mosul became a real battlefield between Sunni Arab insurgents and peshmerga [Kurdish fighters] before Al Qaeda in Iraq really became much of a factor up there,” said Wayne White, head of the U.S. State Department’s Iraq intelligence team from 2003 to 2005.

“The Sunni Arab population up there knows the Kurds have designs on areas well beyond their current area of control in Nineveh [province], and are doubtless determined to push back,” he said.

The Kurds believe Mosul’s northern and eastern suburbs were wrongfully appropriated by Saddam Hussein’s Sunni Arab regime. They also contend that they are the rightful owners of the Sinjar region in the western part of the province. The sought-after territories are believed to contain oil reserves.

Since late 2004, Kurdish security forces have seized de facto control of the disputed lands. The Kurdistan regional government’s flag, a tricolor with a yellow starburst, flutters across northern Nineveh, and soldiers from neighboring Kurdistan are posted at dozens of sentry posts on roads.

Arabs rarely venture into northern Nineveh these days, even if they have Kurdish friends who fled Mosul, the provincial capital.

“It’s easier for Arabs to go to Syria and Jordan,” said Juneid Fakhr, a retired archaeologist.


The Kurds want a referendum, called for under Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, to formally annex the disputed areas to Kurdistan. The referendum, postponed last year after the Iraqi government failed to conduct a census in the contested north, would also determine the status of the city of Kirkuk and other areas along the border of Kurdistan. A vote could prove to be the trigger for greater Arab-Kurdish bloodshed or a bridge to conciliation and prosperity.

“If it is a good solution that is packaged properly and people understand the ramifications of their voting, it could all be much to do about little,” said Brig. Gen. Tony Thomas, the No. 2 U.S. commander in northern Iraq. “If it’s poorly packaged and there is a run on the bank in any regard and there are loopholes, Article 140 could cause more friction and aggression than had existed here before.”

The Kurds argue that the referendum would be the remedy to the competition in Nineveh and throughout the north.

“After Article 140, there will be no Arab-Kurdish problem,” said Nineveh’s deputy governor, Khasro Goran, a Kurd who is viewed as the most powerful political leader in the province.

Both sides portray themselves as the sufferer. Goran, who has survived seven assassination attempts, charges that the Kurdish ambitions have provoked a systematic campaign against his people.

“The Kurds have been the victim. More than 3,000 Kurds have been killed since November 2004 in Mosul, and 60,000 have fled Mosul,” he said. “These attacks are to scare people not to support the Kurdistan regional government in case of a referendum.”


In turn, Sunni Arabs argue that the Kurds’ domination of the provincial government and military has played into the hands of radical Sunni militant groups.

“The majority of people in Mosul believe that the Kurds want to take over Mosul,” said Sunni provincial council member Hassan Thanoun Alaf, who is with the Iraqi Islamic Party. “When Arabs and Kurds are on good terms, then Al Qaeda will not find support [in Nineveh] -- especially among the tribes.”

Alaf hopes that provincial elections, tentatively scheduled for Oct. 1, will give the Arabs real power in the government. Kurds dominate the province’s government because of a Sunni Arab boycott of Iraq’s first post-Hussein elections in January 2005.

Although the Americans downplay the chances of civil war in Nineveh, they recognize that the Kurds are on a mission to expand Kurdistan’s borders after centuries at the mercy of various Arab, Turkish and Iranian regimes.

“They never had any geographic boundaries, so right now it’s still going to play out,” Brig. Gen. Thomas said. “They are one of these irrepressible forces,” going after what they think is their God-given right. “We should stay out of the middle because we will be played one way or the other.”

Despite such wishes, U.S. officials recognize that their dependence on the Kurds may have tipped the balance of power in favor of their longtime ally. The Americans relied on Kurdish forces to stop Sunni fighters from seizing Mosul in November 2004, and the influx of Kurdish fighters allowed Kurdistan to cement its grip on Mosul’s northern and eastern outer rings. Veterans of the Kurdish security forces also form the backbone of the main Iraqi army division in Mosul.


“The hard part for us and what we are trying to sort through is the battle space of ’05 and ‘06, when Mosul fell the first time,” Thomas said. “The Kurds came down in a big way. We pretty much supported that because there wasn’t anyone else to go to.”

Such tactics helped push Sunni Arab’s who had been Iraqi military officers to join insurgent groups. Senior security officers in Nineveh acknowledge that their former army colleagues, dismissed by the Americans in 2003, are the ones fighting them. Even the Arab-dominated police force has struggled with infiltration.

“These things happen in Iraq,” said Wathiq Hamdani, until recently the acting provincial police chief. “My friend is now my enemy.”

The U.S. Army has led a new drive to recruit former Arab officers to join the post-Hussein Iraqi army, but the city’s bloodshed has not abated.

The friction between Kurds and Arabs is on full display in Mosul’s police jail. Abdullah, a balding man dressed in a black shirt and pants, spent more than two years at Akre prison in Kurdistan before being transferred back to Mosul last summer. Kurdish security forces raided his house in January 2005 in the Mosul suburb of Zamur, one of the contested territories that the Kurds hope to annex.

At Akre, he says, he was shocked with electricity and sodomized with a broken bottle. Abdullah is unsure what he will do if he is freed. He doesn’t believe he can return to Zamur. “Where I live now, Kurds control everything,” he said.


His brother, who still lives in the town, agreed that the Kurds dominate life there, particularly the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP.

“The KDP controls security and government offices. Anyone who wants to get employed needs a recommendation from the party,” Abdullah’s brother, who asked that his name not be used for fear of harassment, said by phone. “Yes, they prefer Kurds over Arabs.”

Publicly, the Americans say they are not aware of any abuses committed by the Kurds against Arabs, but one U.S. official who formerly worked in Iraq acknowledged that the Kurds carried out targeted killings in Mosul against suspected fighters terrorizing their community.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, pointed to the assassinations as proof of the Kurds’ military discipline, comparing Kurdish fighters favorably to Shiite security forces in Baghdad who have been accused of indiscriminately killing and arresting Sunni Arabs.

“When Kurds get killed in Mosul, Kurdish special operations/intelligence units surgically go after that person” who did the killing, the former official said. “It’s not collective punishment, but they will go and kill that individual. . . . The Kurds are very responsible about it.”

If actions of the Kurdish security force provoke Arabs, they make Kurds feel safe.

Ibrahim Faris Aziz fled Mosul for the suburb of Bashiqa in mid-2004 after his son was killed by a car bomb and a gunman shot a fellow mechanic. He keeps in touch with a few favorite Arab customers through friends who still venture into Mosul, but mainly his feelings are negative. “Three-quarters of Arabs are bad,” he said.


He hopes Kurdistan annexes Bashiqa.

“They are protecting democracy. The terrorists won’t come here as long as the peshmerga are here,” he said. “Security is the most important thing.”