A bitter conflict is unfolding in northern Iraq between two minority communities, with the Americans accused of turning a blind eye to killings and ethnic cleansing.
The Kurds, the victims of oppression by Saddam Hussein and previous regimes in Baghdad, are being blamed for a violent campaign of intimidation against the Turkoman population. Organizations representing the Turkomans say they want British and European troops to protect them because the Americans are acquiescing in what is taking place.
Kirkuk, a city with a history of communal violence, is a focal point of the struggle.
The richest oil wells in the country are near by.
About 5,000 American troops moved into Mosul yesterday to take control of another strategic flashpoint in northern Iraq, where well-armed Arab, Kurdish and Turkoman factions are vying for power. The retired US general in charge of rebuilding Iraq, Jay Garner, traveled to Dukan in northern Iraq for talks with the main Kurdish leaders and promised that the new government would be a "mosaic" representing "all the Iraqi people".
In Kirkuk, peshmerga fighters of Jalal Talabani's PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) and Massoud Barzani's KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party), Turkoman militia, armed Arab fighters and US forces form a combustible mixture. Eleven people are reported to have been killed and more than 50 injured in the past 10 days. Dozens of families, mainly Turkoman but some of them Arab, are said to have been driven from their homes by Kurds.
There is also friction between the Kurdish groups. The KDP accuses the PUK of breaking an agreement and bringing fighters into Kirkuk. They say this has forced them to call in their own peshmerga.
The Turkomans claim they form 65 per cent of the population of 600,000 in greater Kirkuk, that the Arabs form 25 per cent and the rest are Kurds and Assyrians. But the Kurds insist that they are the majority. All the communities say they have received little benefit from the region's oil.
The Turkomans, who settled in Mesopotamia from the 11th century, have suffered harsh treatment. The British, after occupying Iraq in 1918, tried to force them to assimilate into Kurdish and Arab societies. There were massacres of Turkomans by Iraqi forces in 1924 and 1959, and successive Baath regimes dispersed Turkomans and the Kurds from the area. They replaced them with Arabs from the south and east.
The PUK and the KDP say that Kirkuk and the neighboring city of Mosul must be part of any future Kurdish autonomous region. They have kept their peshmergas in both cities, purportedly to help the Americans with security.
"But their real role is to harass and attack us. They want to kill us or drive us out," said Mohammed Kemal Yaycili, an executive officer of the Turkoman Front. "We have had a series of attacks as soon as the war ended and the Kurds moved in. The Americans said ... they had asked the Kurds to leave, but nothing happened. When we complained to [them] about the attack, nothing happened either. The Americans favor the Kurds. They are working hand in hand."
Mr Yaycili, who was until recently the London representative of the organization, added: "We believe the aim of the PUK and the KDP is to drive out enough Turkomans so that we are no longer the majority. Then, no doubt, they will resume fighting each other like they have always done."
At the KDP's offices, Mohammed Kamal Salah admitted there had been killings of Turkomans. "But that is a problem between them and the PUK. The PUK brought armed men into here, which is a breach of the agreement we had with them. But let us get one thing clear, the Kurds are the majority here, not the Turkomans."
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd