Kurdish Officials Sanction Abductions in Kirkuk

Aissa Ramadan with his sons Raed and Saad. The sons were seized at their home near Kirkuk along with three uncles and their grandfather, 87.
Aissa Ramadan with his sons Raed and Saad. The sons were seized at their home near Kirkuk along with three uncles and their grandfather, 87. (By Anthony Shadid -- The Washington Post)

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By Steve Fainaru and Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 15, 2005

KIRKUK, Iraq -- Police and security units, forces led by Kurdish political parties and backed by the U.S. military, have abducted hundreds of minority Arabs and Turkmens 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 Sulaymaniyah, 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 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 have "greatly exacerbated tensions along purely ethnic lines" and endangered U.S. credibility, the nine-page cable, dated June 5, stated. "Turkmen in Kirkuk tell us they perceive a U.S. tolerance for the practice while Arabs in Kirkuk believe Coalition Forces are directly responsible."

The cable said 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.

Kirkuk, a city of almost 1 million, is home to Iraq's most combustible mix of politics and economic power. Kurds, who are just shy of a majority in the city and are growing in number, hope to make Kirkuk and the vast oil reserves beneath it part of an autonomous Kurdistan. Arabs and Turkmens 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.

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 Turkmen politicians put the number at more than 600 and said many families feared 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 intelligence agency is made up of Kurds, and the emergency unit is composed of a mixture of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens.

The cable indicated that the problem extended to Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city and the main city in the north, and regions near the Kurdish-controlled border with Turkey.

The transfers occurred "without authority of local courts or the knowledge of Ministries of Interior or Defense in Baghdad," the State Department cable stated. U.S. military officials said judges they consulted in Kirkuk declared the practice illegal under Iraqi law.

Early on, the campaign targeted former Baath Party officials and suspected insurgents, but it has since broadened. Among those seized and secretly transferred north were car merchants, businessmen, members of tribal families, Arab soldiers and, in one case, an 87-year-old farmer with diabetes. 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 who was released last week from the prison in Irbil.


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