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Turkmen leader fears Kurds will start civil war in northern Iraq

IRBIL, Iraq—A prominent leader of the Turkmen people, the third-largest minority group in Iraq, said Monday that he fears Kurdish forces in northern Iraq could begin "a campaign of genocide" against his kinsmen in the chaos of a war to topple Saddam Hussein and called for the inclusion of Turkish troops in any U.S.-led invasion force.

"They plan to attack us when the fighting starts between the USA and Baghdad," said San'an Ahmed Agha, president of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, a grouping of three major political parties. "They are planning a genocide."

Agha's comments, during a rare interview at his heavily guarded headquarters in Irbil, underscored northern Iraq's ethnic rivalries. Just blocks away, thousands of Kurdish citizens and students marched through the streets to protest any intervention by Turkish soldiers. Turkmen citizens interviewed here Monday reported increasing concern for their safety.

Kurdish officials criticized Agha. "Our view is that all Iraqis should be looking within Iraq for support, not to Turkey," said Fauzi Hariry, a senior official of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the dominant Kurdish group. "These comments won't be helpful in quieting the situation. We see Turkmen as equals and as brothers."

Turkmen, who are linguistically and culturally related to the Turks, are believed to number just more than 1 million people, or about 4 percent of the Iraqi population. Turkmen groups put the number much higher, at some 13 percent, with large communities in Baghdad and the northern oil-producing cities of Mosul and Kirkuk.

The Turkmen Front is said to be financed by the Turkish government, perhaps through semi-official charities. Analysts also cautioned that the group did not represent all Turkmen inside Iraq.

Agha, a lawyer, said Turkmen relations with the KDP and the other main Kurdish faction, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), have become severely strained in recent days, which explains the dozens of soldiers at his political headquarters and the phalanx of a dozen bodyguards that always accompanies him. Both Kurdish groups have large standing armies.

"If we're forced, we'll fight back," he said. "In one or two days we can put together 70,000 troops, from generals to privates. They are well-trained and highly experienced. Even current members of the Iraqi national army have told us they'll help us."

Relations worsened over the weekend when an Iraqi opposition conference elected a six-man leadership council but failed to include a Turkmen in the group.

"They neglected us completely," said Agha, who has threatened to withdraw his group from the opposition coalition. "How is it possible to ignore the third-largest population group in the nation?"

Arabs make up about 75 percent of the Iraqi population and Kurds about 19 percent.

Agha said the KDP, which controls most of the autonomous region of Kurdistan, has falsely imprisoned Emir Ezed, the Turkmen's head of security. The KDP has charged Ezed with being a terrorist and said he has connections to Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. Agha called the charges "nonsense."

Most Turkmen in Irbil say tensions are such that they do not speak their language aloud in public any more.

"We are afraid for our lives," said one man. "When we leave our houses in the morning now, we say a special goodbye to our families because we know we might not ever see them again. This is our daily reality."

His fears were seemingly borne out by the remarks of one Kurdish marcher in Monday's demonstration. The man, a taxi driver, said, "We should just kill all those Turkmen vermin right now. We shouldn't wait. Just kill them now."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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