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Battle for Mosul Highlights Ethnic Tensions


This next report underlines how complicated it is to be part of the new Iraq. The northern Iraqi city of Mosul is where we're going. It's the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in the country. So the Iraqi government dispatched about 9,000 Iraqi army troops to help U.S. forces there. Trouble is, some residents do not see them as Iraqis first, but as members of their ethnic group. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro explains.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Among the Iraqi soldiers garrisoned at a combat outpost on the banks of the Tigris River, there is one language that predominates.


(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Almost the entire detachment here is Kurdish. Many don't even speak Arabic. Former peshmerga, as the Kurdish militia men are called, they form the bulk of the Iraqi army in this city now. Mosul is a mixed city, Sunni Arabs, Shia, Kurds, Yazidis, Christians and Turkmen. The balance of power is finely calibrated. The presence of a large number of Kurdish security forces is unwelcomed by some. Lieutenant Colonel Michael Simmering is with the 3rd Armored Calvary Regiment.

Lieutenant Colonel MICHAEL SIMMERING (3rd Armored Calvary Regiment): When you had the government stand up, you had a disaffected Sunni Arab population that, quite honestly, because their needs weren't being addressed, sided with the insurgency in hopes that that would eventually bring them back to power. I think over time, what they're starting to realize is that walking out on the elections in 2005 was something that they will openly admit was a mistake.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Sunni Arabs boycotted the elections that year, and the result was a Kurdish victory in Mosul. Thirty-one out of 41 members of the Provincial Counsel are affiliated with Kurdish parties. The deployment of Kurdish forces here has tipped the balance even further.

Lt. Col. SIMMERING: One of the grievances that's listed by the Sunni population is that they perceive the Iraqi army as the Kurdish Peshmerga.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: And one only has to enter Sunni Arab areas to see that many people there don't like it. The mission for Delta Platoon with the 1st Battalion 8th Infantry Regiment was seemingly simple: head out to a residential neighborhood in the eastern part of the city and try and engage the local population. The military calls it conducting atmospherics. It's a way of taking the temperature of a new area they may have not patrolled before and getting information.

Unidentified Man: So this is a really quite neighborhood through here?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A cy-op soldier attached to the unit questions a man sitting in a group by the side of the road.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The man assures the American that there has never been an attack here. But at the same moment, another resident tells an NPR Iraqi staffer that gunmen came a few days ago and broke the generator that powers the local cell phone tower. The Americans get back into their vehicles, and not more than 100 feet down the street, they come under fire. There are no casualties or damage, but Captain Alexander Rasmussen says the message to the population was clear.

Captain ALEXANDER RASMUSSEN (Delta Platoon, 1st Battalion 8th Infantry Regiment): When they fire small amounts of, you know, rounds at it, they're not looking to do as much damage to us, but it's trying to intimidate the people is what it's trying to do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The tactic, though, is effective. No one wants to talk about the insurgents, but almost everyone has something to say about the Iraqi army. Twenty-two-year-old Mohad Suivan(ph) is a Kurd living in a predominately Sunni Arab neighborhood.

Mr. MOHAD SUIVAN: There's a lot of tensions. A lot of people talk about it. Some people hate us, hate Kurds, because, you know, they're the peshmerga. There's a lot of army are Kurds, so they hate army, especially the Iraqi army. They're not good with the people.

GARCIA NAVARRO: In another area, the complaints are similar. The army is more expected in the mostly Sunni Arab police, but people say they are heavy handed. Mahmoud Unis(ph), a Sunni Arab, works at the central bank in Mussel.

Mr. MAHMOUD UNIS: (Through translator) People are scared of the peshmerga because they hurt people. They break stuff. They kick whole families out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But the American soldier who is talking to him doesn't get to hear what Unis is saying. His translator, a Kurd, instead tells him that Unis is talking about the insurgents who terrorize the neighborhood. Back at the garrison, Sergeant Major Hussein Awni, a Kurd with the Iraqi army, acknowledges that their presence is sometimes not well-received in Sunni districts of the city.

Sergeant Major HUSSEIN AWNI: (Through translator) Even the ones who like us lie when they're asked, they can't say they like us because people are afraid of the terrorists.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Then he turns to brief his men on their next patrol.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Mosul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.