US forces stepped up their presence in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk on Friday after another spate of inter-ethnic attacks left at least two people dead in clashes with local police.
The new wave of violence has been triggered by a push from Kurdish leaders for increased autonomy that has angered Arab and Turkmen residents of the racially divided city.
The shooting of two Arab gunmen came after the Thursday night killing of a Kurdish man in an Arab neighbourhood, police told the Associated Press. Local officials suspect several other demonstrators were killed or wounded in heavy gunfire, but their bodies were dragged away. Police were monitoring hospitals to gauge the final casualty toll.
Colonel William Mayville, commander of the 173rd Airborne brigade, which is responsible for security in Kirkuk, is expected to go on radio and television on Saturday to appeal for calm.
Col Mayville has been in talks with local leaders since New Year's eve, when a protest by 3,000 Arabs and Turkmen at the local office of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan turned into a battle with Kurdish peshmerga, leaving at least five dead. Paul Bremer, the US-appointed Iraqi administrator, travelled to the city on Friday to discuss Kurdish demands for autonomy.
Coalition officials who have visited Kurdish-dominated areas in recent days have expressed surprise and concern over the growing number of local Kurdish leaders who have given outspoken support for independence.
There is suspicion that the main Kurdish parties are inflaming passions in an attempt to gain concessions for their proposal for increased federal powers. Shortly after the introduction of their proposal to the Governing Council, a Kurdish demonstration was staged in Kirkuk where protesters called for the oil-rich city to be included in an independent Kurdistan.
The proposal, submitted by the PUK and its rival Kurdistan Democratic Party in mid-December, calls for wide-ranging autonomy, including veto power over Iraqi troop movements and control of natural resources in the oil-rich region.
Kurdish officials have insisted that the issues be resolved in the transitional law currently being debated by the Governing Council, which must be completed by the end of next month. Coalition officials suspect that the matter will eventually be postponed until a constitutional convention in 2005.
- A US Army Kiowa Warrior observation helicopter was shot down by insurgents near the restive Sunni Triangle city of Falluja on Friday, killing one soldier and wounding another. Military officials said Iraqis masquerading as journalists later opened fire with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades on soldiers guarding the wreckage.