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US military supports kurds in abductions { June 15 2005 }

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U.S. memo tells of abductions of Kirkuk minorities
Hundreds of men reportedly seized off streets and sent to prisons in northern Iraq
- Steve Fainaru, Anthony Shadid, Washington Post
Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Kirkuk, Iraq -- Police and security units, led by Kurdish political parties and backed by the U.S. military, have abducted hundreds of minority Arabs and Turkomans in this intensely volatile city and spirited them to prisons in Kurdish-held northern Iraq, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials, government documents and families of the victims.

Seized off the streets of Kirkuk or in joint U.S.-Iraqi raids, the men have been transferred secretly and in violation of Iraqi law to prisons in the Kurdish cities of Irbil and Sulaymaniya, sometimes with the knowledge of U.S. forces.

The detainees, including merchants, members of tribal families and soldiers, have often remained missing for months; some have been tortured, according to released prisoners and the Kirkuk police chief.

A confidential June 5 State Department cable, obtained by the Washington Post and addressed to the White House, Pentagon and U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, said the "extra-judicial detentions" were part of a "concerted and widespread initiative" by Kurdish political parties "to exercise authority in Kirkuk in an increasingly provocative manner."

The abductions came to light as violence racked Kirkuk, as a suicide bomber blew himself up Tuesday in a crowd of retirees lining up to receive their pensions. At least 22 people were killed and 80 injured, including women and children, police and hospital officials said.

Kirkuk, a city of almost 1 million that sits atop some of Iraq's richest oil fields, is home to Iraq's most combustible mix of politics and economic power. Kurds, who are just shy of a majority in the city's and are growing in number, hope to make Kirkuk part of an autonomous Kurdistan.

Arabs -- both Shiites and Sunnis -- and Turkomans compose most of the rest of the population. They have struck an alliance to curb the ambitions of the Kurds, who have wielded increasing authority in a long-standing collaboration with their U.S. allies.

The question of who will administer the city is expected to be one of the most contentious issues during the writing of the permanent constitution, and analysts say Kirkuk could descend into large-scale civil strife if political solutions are not carefully laid out.

The abductions have "greatly exacerbated tensions along purely ethnic lines" and endangered U.S. credibility, the nine-page State Department cable stated. Turkomans "tell us they perceive a U.S. tolerance for the practice while Arabs in Kirkuk believe coalition forces are directly responsible."

The cable said that the 116th Brigade Combat Team, which oversees security in Kirkuk, had urged Kurdish officials to end the practice. "I can tell you that the coalition forces absolutely do not condone it," Brig. Gen. Alan Gayhart, the brigade commander, said in an interview.

Some abductions occurred more than a year ago. But according to U.S. officials, Kirkuk police and Arab leaders, the campaign surged after the Jan. 30 elections consolidated the two main Kurdish parties' control over the Kirkuk provincial government. The two parties are the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

The U.S. military said it had logged 180 cases; Arab and Turkoman politicians put the number at more than 600 and said many families fear retribution for coming forward.

U.S. and Iraqi officials, along with the State Department cable, said the campaign was being orchestrated and carried out by the Kurdish intelligence agency, known as Asayesh, and the Kurdish-led Emergency Services Unit, a 500- member anti-terrorism squad within the Kirkuk police force. Both are closely allied with the U.S. military.

The transfers occurred "without authority of local courts or the knowledge of Ministries of Interior or Defense in Baghdad," the State Department cable stated.

A former fighter pilot said his interrogation in Irbil focused in part on whether he participated in the chemical weapons attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja in March 1988 in which an estimated 5,000 people died. "I think it's about revenge," said the man, who identified himself as Abu Abdullah Jabbouri and was released last week from the prison in Irbil.

Abdul Rahman Mustafa, the Kurdish governor of Kirkuk province, said the reports of abductions were "not true," although prisoners were often transferred to relieve crowding.

Maj. Darren Blagburn, intelligence officer for the 116th, acknowledged that Arab and Turkoman detainees were surreptitiously transferred to Kurdish prisons without judicial oversight. He denied any U.S. role in the transfers.

Blagburn said he and other U.S. officers intervened with Kurdish leaders after discovering the practice nearly a month ago. "We put a stop to it," he said. "One of the myths is that it is spiraling out of control and nobody is doing anything about it and nobody cares. That is absolutely not true."

Gen. Turhan Yusuf Abdel-Rahman, the chief of Kirkuk's police force, described the abductions as "political kidnappings" orchestrated by the Kurdish parties and their intelligence arms, despite his attempts to stop the practice. Abdel-Rahman, who is Turkoman, said at least four Arabs and one Turkmen were seized last week but "there may be others." On Sunday, two days after Blagburn's remarks, the U.S. military received reports that nine more Arabs and Turkomans were missing.

Abdel-Rahman said he was deeply frustrated. "People ask us about their sons. What should I say to them?"

Tuesday's attack on civilians, the deadliest in Kirkuk since the toppling of Saddam Hussein's government, took place on a particularly violent day in Iraq.

Five Iraqi police were killed when a suicide car bomb rammed into a checkpoint outside Baquba, 35 miles northeast of the capital, a police official in Baquba said.

The U.S. military said a soldier was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade while on patrol in Baghdad on Tuesday, and two soldiers died from a roadside bomb explosion near the western provincial capital of Ramadi on Monday.

The 2nd Marine Division said Marines accidentally killed five civilians and wounded four others on Tuesday after firing at two cars speeding toward a checkpoint near Ramadi. The cars had approached the checkpoint shortly after an insurgent had tried ramming into the checkpoint with a suicide car bomb, the Marines said in a written statement.

The New York Times contributed to this report.

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