MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) - In battle-scarred Mosul, Kurds and Arabs trade accusations rooted in ethnic rivalry and a battle for oil and power that many fear threaten security in Iraq.
Kurds make up about a quarter of Mosul’s residents and represent a powerful minority in this northern Iraqi city still shaken by car bombs and assassinations.
The army in Mosul is mainly Kurdish, which angers Sunni Arabs who make up about 60 percent of the 2.8 million population of the province of which Mosul is the capital.
Mosul, a strategic city where cultures, religions and ethnicities collide, saw an exodus of thousands of Christians last month following a campaign of threats and violence against them, although some have since returned.
U.S. military officials blamed Sunni Muslim al Qaeda or similar Islamist groups in Mosul, which they say is the last big city in Iraq still with a large al Qaeda presence.
Kurds control the provincial governing council after most Sunnis boycotted local polls in 2005, but the balance of power in Mosul could change in elections due by late January.
Christians, who are believed to number around 250,000 to 300,000 in the province, could be a swing vote, wooed by Kurds or Arabs in a fight for power.
Local Iraqi Army units in Mosul are mainly made up of Kurds. Arabs in the area scornfully refer to them as “Peshmerga,” the name for former guerrilla fighters that make up the security forces of the autonomous Kurdish region further north.
Bashar Fahdil, a shopkeeper in Mosul, like other Arabs says Kurdish soldiers share blame for ongoing violence. When civilians are attacked, he said, “Kurdish soldiers just watch.”
Kurds bristle at such insinuations.
“The Arab families in our neighborhood know we have no fault in any sectarian or ethnic treason,” Um Reezan, a Kurdish housewife in eastern Mosul said. “But there are people who think only superficial thoughts, and sometimes they hint at us.”
Colonel Dildar Jamel Mohammed, a Kurd who commands an Iraqi Army battalion in western Mosul, said insurgents were stoking ethnic tension and trying to sabotage security.
“Al Qaeda uses this as a tool,” he said, referring to the Sunni Islamists who, in Iraq, are almost all Arabs.
Ambassador Thomas Krajeski, a senior U.S. official in Baghdad, described the ancient city on the Tigris River as “where all the fault lines that exist in Iraq come together.
“It is a place where Kurd and Arab officials can solve some of these key issues: what does it mean to be a federal Iraq?”
That question takes on a new urgency as Kurds, who make up a fifth of Iraq’s mainly Arab population, vie for control of disputed cities, towns and villages along the “green line” that divides Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq.
Iraqi Kurds, who have long dreamed of their own state, hoped to strengthen their hand within Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, who killed tens of thousands of Kurds in the 1980s.
Their economic and territorial ambitions appear more at risk as the U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite Arab, grows more assertive and Washington charts a course for withdrawing its 150,000 troops in Iraq.
Masoud Barzani, president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, described the gathering resentment some Kurds feel toward Baghdad.
“We seem to still be under the influence of a totalitarian regime. The one that takes over power thinks he has the last word in everything ... He forgets coalitions, commitments and the constitution,” he said in a recent newspaper interview.
Kurdish and central government officials set up a special commission this summer to try to defuse such tensions.
Gareth Stansfield, a Kurdistan expert at the University of Exeter, said the standoff is really about defining what the Kurdish position will be, politically and geographically.
“It can’t be put off any longer. The pressure has become so intense that something has to give,” he said.
U.S. diplomats and senior military officials have been sitting down with Kurdish and Arab officials to encourage them to mend differences over explosive issues like Khanaqin, a largely Kurdish town in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad.
Conflict nearly broke out in late summer when Iraqi troops tried to replace Peshmerga in Khanaqin. The standoff was defused, but left Kurdish leaders even more suspicious.
Brigadier General Tony Thomas, the top U.S. commander in Mosul, said Maliki increasingly “sees the Kurds, specifically the Peshmerga, as a militia, unauthorized, shouldn’t be there.”
What many forget, he says, is that Peshmerga were invited to help keep the peace in some of Iraq’s most troublesome areas.
Thomas said Kurds are more nervous about what they see as Baghdad’s growing unilateralism as U.S. troops prepare to leave.
“They literally said, ‘We must be armed because as soon as you leave, we see this coming ... (Maliki) is going to attack us as soon as you turn away,’” Thomas said.
Behind the quarrels is oil. Many of the disputed areas along the “green line” have promising reserves, especially Kirkuk, an ethnically mixed city that accounts for a quarter of Iraq’s oil exports. Kurds consider Kirkuk their historic capital.
Iraq’s constitution provides for a referendum on control of the city. That vote has been postponed indefinitely, but Kurds think they would win it, undoing Saddam’s “Arabization” of one of Iraq’s main oil-producing areas.
Arab-Kurdish disputes have so far held up legislation on how to share oil wealth. Meanwhile, Kurdistan has signed oil deals of its own, which Baghdad considers void. Companies pumping in Kurdistan cannot export oil without Baghdad’s permission.
The impasse affects not just Iraq’s oil sector, but all investment, casting a shadow on the U.S. project in Iraq.
“The United States cannot afford a conflict to break out between Kurds and Arabs if they want to withdraw their forces and claim success,” Stansfield said.
Editing by Charles Dick