Revenge takes root in Iraq

The emboldened Kurds are resorting to some decidedly undemocratic methods toward consolidating power.

Published June 15, 2005 1:39PM (EDT)

Just how well is democracy taking root in the fertile political soil of Iraq? A front-page story in today's Washington Post offers some measure, with the emboldened Kurds resorting to some decidedly undemocratic methods toward consolidating power.

"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.'"

Rising tensions boiling over into civil war is one serious concern, of course -- and U.S. credibility, or what remains of it, another.

"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.'"

According to the Post, neither the new Iraqi government in Baghdad nor the U.S. military has sanctioned the abductions. Maj. Darren Blagburn, an intelligence officer for the 116th Brigade Combat Team in Kirkuk, acknowledged that Arab and Turkmen detainees were surreptitiously transferred to Kurdish prisons without judicial oversight, but he denied any U.S. role in the transfers, while also saying they were necessary because of crowding in Kirkuk's jails. "We put a stop to it," Blagburn said, adding: "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."

Yet, as the systematic campaign deepens the climate of fear and intimidation in and around Kirkuk, allegations of U.S. complicity may not be entirely unfounded: According to the Post, both U.S. and Iraqi officials say the campaign has been 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 of which are closely allied with the U.S. military. And elsewhere in Iraq, the U.S. military has already made clear its tolerance for the use of unsavory methods toward bringing order to the country.

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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