A shootout over an unpaid gasoline bill in this small but hotly contested town has sent tensions soaring between the Iraqi government in Baghdad and the northern region of Kurdistan, threatening to ignite the Arab-Kurdish conflict that many have long feared.
On Tuesday, the Iraqi army rushed thousands of troops and reinforcements to the area after the Kurdish regional government placed its pesh merga militia forces on high alert along the arc of disputed territory that spans the borders of the semiautonomous Kurdish enclave.
Col. Dhia al-Wakil, a spokesman for the Iraqi army, said the additional troops were dispatched "only as a precautionary measure, to face any possible attack from the pesh merga."
But Kurds said they suspect that the reinforcements, which include tanks and heavy artillery, signal an intent to attack their forces. "If the central government keeps sending these extra troops, we fear there may be clashes," said Jabar Yawar, the pesh merga's secretary general. "If one bullet is fired, the whole of the disputed areas will erupt in flames."
American officials have stepped in to mediate amid concerns that a crisis that is rapidly becoming the country's worst since U.S. troops left almost a year ago could explode into full-blown war. Diplomats are in contact with leaders throughout Iraq "to emphasize the need to move quickly to alleviate current tensions," said a U.S. Embassy spokesman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
"It is important that all sides remain committed to resolving their differences through dialogue," the spokesman added.
The escalation came after days of taut exchanges between Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Kurdish President Massoud Barzani in the wake of the firefight, which flared after two Arab men refused to pay a local vendor for gasoline. The vendor complained at an Iraqi police checkpoint, Kurdish guards at the nearby home of a Kurdish official accused the police of complicity, the Iraqi army showed up, "and everyone started shooting at everyone else," said Shalal Abdul, Tuz Khurmatu's Kurdish mayor.
Guards at the offices of three local political parties — Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen — joined in the battle, in which 10 guards and police officers were injured and a passing tractor driver was killed.
"It was a kind of chaos," Abdul said. "It was personal, not political. But it has blown up beyond all proportion."
Indeed, the speed with which a seemingly minor fracas spiraled into a full-fledged crisis underscores the dangers of the many unresolved disputes between Baghdad and Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region. Their quarrels, over the distribution of land, money, power and oil, are not new, but they have intensified in the year since U.S. forces withdrew, taking with them the mechanisms and structures put in place during the final years of the Iraq war to avert such an escalation.
Tuz Khurmatu, a forlorn, windswept town of 50,000 straddling the highway linking Baghdad to the disputed city of Kirkuk, typifies the combustible mix of sects and ethnicities that characterizes more than a dozen contested communities strung out along the country's Arab-Kurdish fault line, dubbed "the trigger line" for its potential to ignite conflict. U.S. troops had deployed along the line in the last two years of the war in an effort to forge an understanding between Iraqi and Kurdish forces that they hoped would outlast the American presence. It appears it did not.
"As long as the Americans were there, they kept people talking," said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group. "But now that they're gone, anything could happen."
Although Tuz Khurmatu has long been regarded as a majority-Turkmen town and is in the Arab Iraqi province of Salahuddin, no census has been conducted in decades and Kurds claim to be the bigger community. They have administered the town since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 overturned the local government, and they want it to be absorbed permanently into the Kurdish region.
But in recent months, an increasingly assertive Maliki has stirred Kurdish fears that the central government in Baghdad is preparing to wrest back the territories by force. The creation this past summer of a new Iraqi army command structure, known as the Dijla Operations Command and comprising the mostly Arab units of three northern provinces, further fueled those concerns. Iraqi government officials say the new command's purpose is only to streamline efforts to fight terrorism, but Kurds suspect that the goal is to usurp their hegemony over the disputed territories.
A day after the firefight, the head of the Dijla Operations Command threatened to dispatch his forces to the town unless all those involved in the fight were handed over, turning what had started as a personal dispute into a political crisis, the mayor said.
"Tuz Khurmatu is a mini-Iraq. It contains Kurds, Turkmens, Arabs, Sunnis and Shiites," he said. "If any force that comes to this city consists only of Arabs, it will not serve the interests of the town."
But the town's Turkmen residents expressed a different view. In recent months, a surge of bombings, assassinations and kidnappings that seem to target mostly Turkmens has left the community feeling vulnerable, and many say they would welcome the deployment of Iraqi army forces to end Kurdish rule.
"It's the Kurds who are the biggest problem in this town," grumbled a 23-year-old Turkmen resident who hid during the firefight in the back of his shop. "They are 20 percent of the population, but they control everything."
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Jabbar Yaseen contributed to this report.