Town agrees to repair shrine, pay victims

By PAMELA HESS, UPI Pentagon Correspondent  |  Aug. 25, 2003 at 1:55 PM
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TUZ KHURMATU, Iraq, Aug. 25 (UPI) -- An unexpected peace broke out Sunday in the town of Tuz Khurmatu about two hours north of Baghdad, two days after five Turkmen and three Kurds were slain -- possibly by U.S. soldiers trying to separate the two sides -- during a political demonstration that turned violent.

What coalition, U.S. and Turkish officials were eyeing warily as an ethnic powder keg might well turn out to be the start of an egalitarian democracy unlike anything the town has ever seen. If it does not, it could be the fight that draws Turkey into Iraq, but not as peacekeepers.

The Kurds, who have a stranglehold on the city council, agreed Sunday to open up seats for Turkmen. Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen representatives will pool their funds to pay the families of those killed in Sunday's violence the traditional "blood money" thereby ensuring that revenge is not sought. And the three groups will climb a rocky outcropping together to rebuild the dome of a small shrine that was destroyed Thursday night; that incident set off two days of demonstrations in the town and in Kirkuk.

Private security companies were issuing dire warnings to Westerners to avoid the town because of the potential violence.

Former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's regime had destroyed the Turkmen shrine of Imam Ali that sits on a dusty hill overlooking the town, said Army Capt. David Swenson, 30, a Connecticut native and the commander of the C/1-68 Armored Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. When Baghdad fell, the Turkmen set about to rebuild the shrine.

It was completed Thursday, and about 25 young men climbed the hill to worship and to celebrate. This is where the story gets murky.

According to Swenson, the Turkmen may or may not have had words with someone they ran into on the hill, who may or may not have told them he was going to blow up the shrine. He may or may not have been Kurdish.

According to Abdul Amir Kalandar, a Turkmen, when the group descended the hill, they took shots from soldiers from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, headed by Jalal Talabani.

The PUK is the main Kurdish power in town and tensions are traditionally high between the minority Turkmen and majority Kurds after years of fighting in the north. But no ethnic violence had ever occurred, said Arab Sheik Rashid Majid al-Fahad al-Hamadani, in large part because the town was firmly under the control of the Saddam's Baath Party until April.

On Thursday night, someone blew up the just-completed shrine, even as the joyous Turkmen were bringing gifts to the contractor who completed it. In a rage, the Turkmen pulled together a large demonstration. They brought guns. They did not tell Swenson who would have sent some of his 100 soldiers and 14 tanks to provide security.

The protestors quickly ran into trouble.

"We from the PUK went to the Turkmen in the morning to talk to them about the matter," said Karim Shekudr, the local leader of the party, who says Saddam loyalists or Islamists destroyed the shrine to fan tension between Iraq's two ethnic minorities. "We told them our city is not able to stand a demonstration and to try to calm down the people. ... But we are sorry they didn't accept these suggestions and they made a demonstration inside the city and made some activities against the Kurds.

"And they had some gunmen and some shooting happened."

The PUK was at the demonstration, too. No one agrees who shot first -- though Sheik Rashid Majid believes it was the Kurds, and that seemed a popular assessment with everyone but Shekudr -- but shots came quickly. The local hospital said there were eight dead -- three Kurds and five Turkmen. Thirteen others were wounded.

"We are living in a situation that is a spring for troublemakers," Majid said. "There is no security, it is a fresh situation for troublemakers to do anything they want."

Kalendar, the Turkmen, stopped in Baghdad on Friday night with coffins bearing the Turkmen victims of the demonstration. He and some 100 others were bringing the coffins to the holy Shiite city of Karbala for burial.

Swenson said he didn't even know about the demonstrations until the first shots rang out. He sent his tanks into the street and they took fire from the crowd, endangering the Americans who poked out of the top of the machines. They fired on three people who shot at them, he said.

"I know we hit 'em. I just don't know if they were KIA (killed in action) or wounded," he said Sunday, after a draining five-hour meeting in a close, muggy room with about 40 town leaders from all sides.

The bodies of dead and injured were quickly whisked to the hospital by bystanders, common practice in a country that has no reliable ambulance service or emergency capability.

The shootings in Tuz Khurmatu seem to have set off ethnic tensions in nearby Kirkuk where on Saturday Kurdish police -- also members of the PUK -- killed three Turkmen.

"The situation is being followed closely by Ankara and Washington," said Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tyyap Erdogan, who spoke to journalists in Istanbul Sunday.

One of the nightmare scenarios for the recent Iraq war would be that Turkey would send troops into the Kurdish-controlled north to attack those it believes responsible for terrorist acts against it and also to protect the Turkmen minority. That has not yet happened.

But by Saturday, at least in Tuz Khurmatu, the situation was relatively calm, said Swenson. He met with religious leaders that evening and arranged what would turn into a marathon negotiation session on Sunday in the sea-foam green ornate office of the town mayor, a Kurd.

Sweating in his fatigues and presiding over the room from the mayor's desk -- the mayor at his left, an outwardly patient Swenson cajoled the men into drafting and signing a document condemning the destruction of the shrine and apologizing for the deaths on Friday. Swenson meant to come out of this meeting with a written agreement and it was going to be honored.

"This is literally the Declaration of Independence but I've only got three hours to make this up," he said.

The blame -- or at least the expression of regret, which at some point in the future could be interpreted as an acceptance of responsibility -- quickly unraveled three hours of work.

"It was an illegal demonstration without any permission and we don't know the source of fire!" argued the PUK's Shekudr.

Swenson tried to calm the room, which had now broken out in at least three languages of muttering.

"I'm not going to place blame on any one person. If that is what you're looking for, it's not gonna happen," he said.

Three drafts later, with the final version spearheaded by local Shiite cleric Sheik Imam Mahadi in a pint-sized version of shuttle diplomacy -- Shekudr being the last stop -- an agreement was reached.

"We are all sorry for the terrible accident made by troublemakers and we stand together to condemn and deny that action at the dome of the shrine and the shooting of demonstrators," it said.

This would be a codicil to a six-point declaration that everyone in the room filed in the front to sign -- the Declaration of Independence springing to mind again.

Interestingly, no one suggested Swenson sign the paper, though the soldiers are likely responsible for three of the dead.

The agreement also calls for the town to pool resources to pay off the families of the victims. Most of the money will be put up by three men.

"I think these guys right here are the most generous people in this town," Swenson announced.

"The ransom for a man's death is 100 camels!" a Turkman stood and said, quoting Arab tradition.

"It's gonna be hard to get camels, can we just go with cash?" Swenson asked, finally exasperated. "And if you can't afford to pay for the shrine, I expect you to send men up there to work on it."

The PUK agreed to kick in $100 to the rebuilding of the shrine, and then in a fit of generosity boosted it to $150. The cost to rebuild will be about 1.5 million Iraqi dinars, or $1,500.

"I will never run for city council," said Swenson, gripping the bridge of his nose and squinting his eyes with frustration and fatigue. "When I get home, I am going to have a beer and then fly to Australia for two weeks and not see anyone."

When the meeting closed -- more than five hours after it started, with none of the assembled showing any signs of wanting to leave the room as they chatted and embraced and mopped sweat from their brow -- the young tank commander sighed.

"Nobody trained us for this," he said.

On the street outside his office sits a large concrete billboard. It had been a portrait of Saddam but was freshly painted over after the war with three clumsily rendered men: an Arab, on the right, a Turkman on the left, and a Kurd in the middle. The three are arm in arm.

Swenson headed back to the Pink House, headquarters for the company and home to Hera and Zeus, very contented 8-month-old German Shepherd mix puppies the soldiers rescued from the airfield. Five soldiers sprawled on couches, watching French MTV's "Pink" video marathon. They have been in Iraq for six months and expect to be here for at least that much longer.

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