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Iraqi National Guard soldiers left a police station last Thursday to recover the bodies of two men found dead in Mosul.
Iraqi National Guard soldiers left a police station last Thursday to recover the bodies of two men found dead in Mosul. (AP Photo / Jim MacMillan)

Fear of ethnic conflict charges Mosul unrest

MOSUL, Iraq -- After Saddam Hussein was ousted and his security apparatus collapsed, many Iraqis predicted ethnic war. They feared ethnic militias like the Kurdish Peshmerga would fill the security vacuum and engage in a bloody power struggle.

Such dire predictions failed to materialize in the 18 months following Hussein's fall. But the recent explosion of violence in this ethnically divided northern city has deteriorated to the brink of widespread ethnic conflict.

The rising tensions spilled over last week as the corpses of Iraqi soldiers, many of them Kurds, continued to pile up in the streets of Mosul. Most of them were killed by single gunshots to the head. Some were beheaded. The prime suspects are Arab Islamists allied with local Ba'athists, operating in the Old City on Mosul's west bank.

Just across the Tigris River, a battalion of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters mustered before their commander in Kurdish-controlled east Mosul, presenting arms and bellowing assent.

"We are here to defend our people. We will fight, and we will win," their commander, Sadi Ahmed Pire, shouted at the 150 fighters crammed into the courtyard of his headquarters. "The Kurds of Mosul will not be second-class citizens."

"We are ready to defend our brothers!" the soldiers chanted in unison.

These scenes explain why Brigadier General Carter Ham, America's top military commander in the north, said he thinks ethnic war is still possible in Mosul.

American officers blame the untamed insurgency against the interim Iraqi government and their US protectors on a lethal marriage of convenience between a reconstituted Ba'ath Party and a well-developed Islamic movement in Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city.

While the Americans have tolerated the unofficial presence of thousands of Kurdish Peshmerga, who don't fall under Iraqi central government command, they worry that Mosul's volatile mix could touch off wider ethnic carnage.

A resurgent Ba'ath Party has made deep inroads in a population already sympathetic to Arab Islamist movements, American officials say. These same officials fear that intensified presence of powerful Kurdish paramilitaries could provoke the alliance of Ba'athists and Islamists to declare open war on Mosul's Kurds and escalate ethnic violence in the city.

In fact, some US and Kurdish commanders suspect the dozens of assassinated Iraqi soldiers are the first step in a terror campaign against the city's minorities.

According to Ham, Ba'athists and Islamist terror groups like that led by Jordanian Abu Musab al Zarqawi have united in Mosul to try to provoke ethnic war among Sunni Arabs on one side and the city's minorities on the other: Kurds, Turkomen, Assyrian Christians, and Yezidis.

"Zarqawi stated that a specific goal of his organization is to create ethnic strife, and specifically Arab-Kurd," Ham said. "The former regime elements also use that to their advantage."

Like Baghdad, Mosul straddles the Tigris and boasts a top-notch university. On the west bank, the river and a major highway encircle a labyrinthine old city of crumbling mud homes studded with minarets. American armored Stryker vehicles rarely venture into this quarter, and can't fit in many of its narrower alleys. Ba'athists, Islamists, and other insurgent groups launched many of the last month's attacks from Old Mosul.

The city was the intellectual cradle of both the Ba'ath Party and the Islamic Brotherhood, a pan-Arab radical movement, and the city's million-plus population supplied hundreds of thousands of loyalists for Hussein's military and security services.

Insurgents nearly took over Mosul's government headquarters on Nov. 11, and most of the city's police defected or joined the resistance. After four days of clashes, the insurgents withdrew from the battle, and have turned to a relentless assassination campaign targeting Iraqi soldiers and others who work with American forces or Kurdish Peshmerga.

More than 50 bodies have been discovered in the past month, US commanders in Mosul said.

In response to the threat, the Kurdish community consolidated its military control, dispatching thousands of troops to Mosul from elsewhere in the Kurdish north and directly joining forces with the US Army to identify insurgent targets in the city. The Kurds built up a virtual government and a substantial paramilitary force in the years following the 1991 Gulf War, when the United States created a no-fly zone over Kurdish territory to neutralize Hussein's forces.

Ham has adopted unorthodox tactics against the latest violence.

Officially, he said there are no Peshmerga in the city, only Iraqi National Guard soldiers who happen to be ethnic Kurds from neighboring provinces.

"You have seen, in the reporting, lots of reports that the Peshmerga are coming to Mosul," Ham said. "I think these statements are made by those who wish to incite the Sunni Arab people of Mosul and create fear and instability."

But last weekend, Ham toured his area of operations and met with top Kurdish leaders from both parties. He left Pire's compound just as 150 Peshmerga from the Kurdish mountain city of Koya arrived to relieve another unit that had already been in Mosul 10 days.

Ham is also sharing information officially with the Kurdish parties, who have developed their own underground networks of spies and informants in the city.

US troops need to conduct pinpoint raids against the insurgency in Mosul, Ham said.

"The intelligence necessary to do that is tough to come by," Ham said. "As Americans, it is really tough to come by."

So, he said, US forces have relied on the two major Kurdish parties for much for their intelligence.

But the strategy risks destabilizing the city's fragile ethnic equilibrium. Kurds have greatly expanded their sphere of influence on the east bank of the river. Assyrian Christians and Kurds cooperate closely with the US military in the city, while Arabs have mostly stayed away from jobs in the security forces.

A Sunni Arab who works with the American forces and wanted only his first name, Yasin, to be published, said that Islamists had targeted collaborators for execution -- translators, National Guard soldiers, Kurds.

"The Ba'athists aren't trying to kill us. They're trying to recruit us," he said. "They're already looking ahead to the future, when they think they will rule the city."

Ham echoed that assessment: "I think the Ba'athists would like to get control; I think the religious extremists would prefer to have no control."

In the Kurdish part of Mosul, Peshmerga and ethnic Kurds in the Iraqi National Guard are chomping at the bit to expand their role in the city -- and to challenge the Ba'athists.

"If the Americans authorized us, we could control the city," said Hussein Kochar, a Patriotic Union of Kurdistan official in Pire's office. "On our side of the river the Peshmerga control the streets, but they haven't started liquidating the Ba'athists yet."

Pire's Peshmerga troops are under strict orders not to overstep their mandate. Only Iraqi National Guard soldiers are allowed to officially arrest people, and the Peshmerga are not allowed to confiscate other Iraqis' weapons.

On the Arab west bank of the river, the contrast is stark.

In that half of Mosul, only 200 police officers remain on the job out of a force of 5,000 before the November uprising, said Lieutenant Colonel Erik Kurilla, commander of US forces in the Old City.

Kurilla's soldiers, and some Iraqis, now occupy the police stations and are cleaning out the charred wreckage.

"The police could come back here, but the fear is they move back in and torch it," Kurilla said. "Do we have to have a permanent [Iraqi National Guard] presence at the police stations?"

A man named Khalid, an Assyrian Christian translator who used to work at the police stations until they were taken over by insurgents, said that on the day of the attacks at least three different bands -- each declaring, "We are the real mujahideen!" -- came to the police stations demanding that officers give them their weapons.

But all three groups were too late: the police had surrendered their arsenals the day before to Ba'athists, Khalid said.

Now, two dozen shivering Iraqi National Guard soldiers protect the New Mosul neighborhood branch police station, on the edge of the old city.

Four soldiers stood guard on the street on a recent day, while the rest clustered around the station's single kerosene heater, wearing helmets and bulletproof vests looted from the police station's storeroom.

American soldiers provide the real protection, with snipers and heavy machine guns arrayed on the station's roof.

Kurilla is optimistic that US forces, working with Iraqi National Guard and informants, will be able to defuse the cells of Ba'athists, foreign fighters, and indigenous terror groups in the city and prevent widespread ethnic carnage or tit-for-tat killings between Arabs and Kurds.

Last week, a pair of Kurdish informants rode around the city in armored Stryker vehicles identifying targets for US hits. Sweeps over the last few days in villages surrounding Mosul have yielded the arrests of 67 suspects.

But the flow of dead bodies hasn't ceased.

Ham said he doesn't think Iraqi forces will be in a position to provide needed security any time soon, certainly not by the scheduled Jan. 30 national election.

At a meeting of his commanders, Ham said it would take five years to rebuild the police, Kurilla said.

"Now we have the fairly daunting task of rebuilding a legitimate and loyal police force in the city," Ham said. "That's going to take a long time, and we don't have a long time."

Thanassis Cambanis can be reached at tcambanis@globe.com. 

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