Ethnic clash in oil city spells more trouble for US

Ethnic violence between Kurds and Turkomans that could create new problems for the US-led occupation spread to the area of the oil city of Kirkuk in the north of Iraq at the weekend, leaving at least 11 dead.

There were reports of gunfights between Kurds and Turkomans in Kirkuk early yesterday, after rocket-propelled grenades were fired at the statues of two Turkoman heroes in the city. At least two people were reported to have been killed. The violence spread from the nearby town of Tuz Khamato, where at least nine people are believed to have been killed in fighting after Kurds damaged a Turkoman religious shrine.

Trouble between Iraq's many ethnic groups is a nightmare for the occupying forces, still more so in ethnically mixed Kirkuk, which happens to sit on Iraq's vast northern oilfields. Everyone wants a piece of the city, because of the huge oil wealth around it.

The Kurds claim Kirkuk as a capital. But Turkomans, who speak a language close to Turkish, and Arabs, who were moved in from other parts of Iraq under the Saddam Hussein regime, live in the city as well, and want their own share in political power there.

Until now, the main friction in the region since the overthrow of Saddam was between the Arabs and Kurds bent on redressing years of repression at the hands of the old regime. But the new violence has ignited Iraq's small Turkoman minority, who complained of repression under Kurdish rule in the nearby provinces that attained de facto independence after the 1991 Gulf War. That poses an extra danger. The risk of attacks on Iraq's Turkomans has been repeatedly put forward by the Turkish army as a reason for it to send troops into northern Iraq as "peace-keepers".

The Turkish military's bid failed because of opposition at home as well as from Iraq's Kurds, who warned they would oppose any attempt by Turkey to send its troops into their territory, by force if necessary. But it may resurface if violence against Turkomans continues.

Kirkuk's Turkomans were already resentful at the appointment of a Kurdish mayor in Kirkuk, and at attempts by Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which controls the nearby province of Sulaimaniya, to take control of Kirkuk after the fall of the Saddam regime. The PUK yesterday denied accusations that its forces had been involved in the fighting there and in Tuz Kharmato, where Kurds reportedly damaged a newly reopened Turkoman Muslim shrine. Leaders on both sides claim the trouble was caused by "outsiders".

The Kurdish mayor of Kirkuk, Abdel Rahman Mustafa, said that two people had been killed in the city and he would investigate Turkoman claims that Kurdish police had opened fire on Turkomans.

A US Army spokeswoman said two Turkomans killed earlier in Tuz Kharmato had been shot by Iraqi police. "They were nervous and they panicked and fired warning shots into the crowd, which killed two and wounded two," Major Josslyn Aberle said. An hour earlier, she had said American troops fired the fatal shots.

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