This is just one more part of the mosaic of conflicts that amount to a virtual civil war in Iraq. It seems that neither the US nor so far local authorities are able to do much to stop it.
In North Iraq, Sunni Arabs Drive Out Kurds
By EDWARD WONG
Published: May 30, 2007
MOSUL, Iraq — The letter tossed into Mustafa Abu Bakr Muhammad’s front yard got right to the point.
“You will be killed,” it read, for collaborating with the Kurdish militias. Then came the bullet through a window at night.
A cousin had already been gunned down. So Mr. Muhammad and three generations of his family joined tens of thousands of other Kurds who have fled growing ethnic violence by Sunni Arab insurgents here and moved east, to the safety of Iraqi Kurdistan.
“We had our home in Mosul and it was good there, but things are now very bad between Arabs and Kurds,” said Mr. Muhammad, 70, standing outside his new, scorpion-infested cinderblock house in the nearby town of Khabat.
While the American military is trying to tamp down the vicious fighting between rival Arab sects in Baghdad, conflict between Arabs and Kurds is intensifying here, adding another dimension to Iraq’s civil war. Sunni Arab militants, reinforced by insurgents fleeing the new security plan in Baghdad, are trying to rid Mosul of its Kurdish population through violence and intimidation, Kurdish officials said.
Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city, with a population of 1.8 million, straddles the Tigris River on a grassy, windswept plain in the country’s north. It was recently estimated to be about a quarter Kurdish, but Sunni Arabs have already driven out at least 70,000 Kurds and virtually erased the Kurdish presence from the city’s western half, said Khasro Goran, the deputy governor of surrounding Nineveh Province and a Kurd.
The militants “view this as a Sunni-dominated town, and they view the Kurds as encroaching on Mosul,” said Col. Stephen Twitty, commander of the Fourth Brigade, First Cavalry Division, which is deployed in Nineveh. Some Kurdish and Christian enclaves remain on the east side, though their numbers are dwindling. Kurdish officials say the flight has accelerated in recent months, contributing to the wider ethnic and religious partitioning that is taking place all over Iraq.
Nineveh is Iraq’s most diverse province, with a dizzying array of ethnic and religious groups woven into an area about the size of Maryland. For centuries, Arabs, Kurds, Christians, Turkmens, Yezidis and Shabaks lived side by side in these verdant hills, going to the same schools, bartering in the same markets, even intermarrying on occasion.
But what took generations to build is starting to unravel in the shadow of the Sunni Arab insurgency, which is tapping into several wells of ethnic resentment.
Already embittered at the toppling of the Sunni Arab government of Saddam Hussein, insurgents here have been further enraged by their current political disenfranchisement, a result of their boycotting the 2005 elections. The main Kurdish coalition now holds 31 of 41 seats on the provincial council and all the top executive positions, even though Kurds make up only 35 percent of the province. Most Kurds are of the Sunni sect, but they have little in common with the Arabs.
Sunni Arabs have asked for new provincial elections and are growing frustrated that the Shiite- and Kurdish-dominated national government seems to be ignoring their requests.
“We demanded elections a year ago, but it never happened,” said Muhammad Shakir, the local leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the province’s most prominent Sunni Arab political group. “The current council does not represent the governorate.”
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Some officials in the national government say conditions will not permit provincial elections until next year.
Just as worrisome for the Arabs is a growing push by the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan to annex large swaths of eastern and northern Nineveh. A contentious measure in the Constitution gives the regional Kurdish government the right to take the land by the end of 2007 through a popular referendum.
The parts of the province that Iraqi Kurdistan wants are called the “disputed territories” along its border, areas that were historically Kurdish until Saddam Hussein moved in Arabs and forced out half a million Kurds to strengthen Arab control, Kurdish officials say.
Mr. Goran, the deputy governor, said six of Nineveh’s nine districts — with at least 30 percent of the province’s 2.7 million people — could vote to join Iraqi Kurdistan. Before the vote is held, however, the Iraqi government must find a way to move out the Arab settlers and move back the original Kurdish residents. Some of this relocation has already taken place, but many more original residents still need to return, Mr. Goran said.
If the vote is put off, he said, violence will soar even further between Kurds and Arabs as each group struggles for the land. “This is a good time to solve the problem,” he said, “because if not, we will open another front in the north between Kurds and Arabs.”
To ensure control of the lands, the Kurdish parties are encouraging settlers to move to eastern Nineveh, just as they have been doing in disputed areas in Diyala Province and around the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Kurdish militias have also been operating in Nineveh and the streets of Mosul, stoking Sunni Arab fears of Kurdish domination, Colonel Twitty said.
The violence here against the Kurds and other minorities is vicious and unrelenting, Kurdish and American officials say. More than 1,000 Kurdish civilians have recently been killed in Mosul, and at least two or three are gunned down each day now, Mr. Goran said. One well-known Kurdish singer was murdered because he had the same last name as Mr. Goran.
“Everyone gets threats or can feel threatened here,” said James Knight, the head of the State Department’s provincial reconstruction team in Nineveh. “The intimidation of people is one of the dramatic ongoing problems we have.”
Mr. Knight said 70,000 was a reasonable estimate for the number of people who have fled Mosul, but he did not know how many were Kurds.
[On May 13, in the mostly Kurdish district of Makhmur, a suicide truck bomber rammed into the local headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, killing at least 50 people and wounding at least 115. On May 9, a truck bomb exploded in front of Kurdish government offices in Erbil, the relatively secure capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, killing at least 19 and wounding at least 70.]
While the Americans are fighting the Sunni Arab insurgency, they are also vigorously supporting what they say are legitimate Sunni Arab demands, like the call for provincial elections. The Arabs and Kurds have to reach a power-sharing arrangement, American officials say.
But the surge in ethnic violence has sharpened the animosity of Kurds toward Arabs, and few Kurds are ready to forgive the atrocities committed by Mr. Hussein’s Sunni Arab government.
“I compare the Sunni Arabs to Bosnian Serbs: their behavior, their way of thinking, their way of acting,” Mr. Goran said in an interview at the fortified government center downtown. “They are for killings, they are for mass graves. Not all of them, but the majority of them.”
So far, Kurdish militias have refrained from engaging in the kind of wide-scale reprisals against Sunni Arabs that Shiite militias have carried out in Baghdad. But the Kurds are capable, Mr. Goran warned.
“We can kill every day 50 Arabs in the streets,” Mr. Goran said with a quick smile. “Every day, everywhere, in Mosul and outside of Mosul. But we don’t do that, because we know they want us to do that.”
The insurgency here is a caldron of prominent Sunni Arab groups that include Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and Ansar al-Sunna. The city was a recruitment base for commanders of the old Iraqi Army, and former officers are now among the leaders of the local guerrilla movement.
During a November 2004 uprising, much of the Mosul police force defected to the insurgency, and Mr. Goran said he suspects that a third to half of the existing police force still aids or sympathizes with the insurgency. After the execution of Saddam Hussein in December, he said, some policemen put Mr. Hussein’s picture in their cars. A new police chief who is a Sunni Arab, Maj. Gen. Wathiq Muhammad al-Hamdani, is trying to clean house, he said.
There are some positive signs, American commanders say. As in Anbar Province, some Sunni militants are chafing at the Islamist agenda of Al Qaeda, said Lt. Col. Eric Welsh, leader of the Second Battalion, Seventh Cavalry, the single American combat battalion in Mosul.
And one of the two, mostly Kurdish, Iraqi Army divisions in Nineveh has been working well under a respected Sunni Arab general, Brig. Gen. Moutaa Jassim Habeeb, Mr. Goran said. But conservative Sunni Arab politicians in Baghdad are pushing to replace him with a hard-line commander, Mr. Goran added.
If that happens, he said, “no Kurdish soldier will remain in the division.”
Despite their heavy presence in the army, Kurdish soldiers have been unable to end the violence that is driving so many Kurds from Mosul.
Sanaa Saadan and her husband are known as “Mosulis.” They were born and raised there, but they could be the last in their families to lay claim to that title.
Last year, Ms. Saadan and her husband moved with their three sons into the home of her older sister in Khabat, 30 miles to the east. The two said they knew at least seven Kurds who had been murdered in Mosul.
Khabat, just inside Iraqi Kurdistan, has become a place of refuge. Rents have skyrocketed, said the mayor, Rizgar Mustafa Muhammad. At least 1,300 families have moved there from Mosul. More than 120 came in April alone, the most of any month, he said. Soon, he said, tent camps will be needed.
“We were unhappy to leave Mosul,” said Ms. Saadan, 28, as she watched over her youngest son in his crib. Her husband, a wedding singer, finds work scarce in Iraqi Kurdistan. Their two oldest sons had a tough time adjusting to school lessons in Kurdish rather than Arabic.
The highway from Khabat to Mosul runs past Ms. Saadan’s home and through a checkpoint a mile to the west, on a concrete bridge spanning a river that marks the border with Nineveh. Kurdish soldiers check the identification cards of people driving in. They say Kurds arrive regularly in cars packed with furniture and household goods.
“If we’re ordered to go protect residents of Mosul, we’ll do it,” said the commander, Maj. Ghafour Ahmed Hussein.
He stared out at the green hills to the west. Beyond lay the city and its newly emptied houses.
Yerevan Adham contributed from Erbil, and an Iraqi employee of The New York Times from Mosul.