KIRKUK, Iraq (Reuters) - Bombs and mortar blasts struck two cities in Iraq’s disputed territories on Sunday, killing at least nine people at a time of escalating tension between Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdistan region in the north.
A string of bombings hit Kirkuk, an ethnically mixed city at the heart of a dispute between the Arab-led central government in Baghdad and ethnic Kurds who run their own regional authority to the north of the country.
No one claimed responsibility for the attacks, which came as friction grows between Baghdad and Kurdistan after both regions sent troops from their respective armies to reinforce positions along the contested internal frontier.
Three roadside bombs exploded near a Shi‘ite Muslim mosque in Kirkuk city, and a car bomb and a roadside bomb detonated near a Kirkuk television channel, according to police officials.
Kirkuk, a mix of Arabs, Kurds and ethnic Turkman who all claim rights to the city, has been seen as a flashpoint for potential conflict between Iraqi Arabs and ethnic Kurds since the last American troops left Iraq a year ago.
“The terrorists want to create chaos and strife among Kirkuk’s components,” Kirkuk’s Governor Najimeldin Kareem, a Kurd, told Reuters. “First, they attack Kurds, then Arabs and then Turkmen.”
Omar Sideeq, head of Kirkuk’s health department, said six people were killed and 30 were wounded in the city. But a police official said 10 people had been killed in the attacks.
The blasts came just hours after bombs planted inside a car killed two Kurdish Peshmerga military recruits in another disputed region of northern Iraq.
Those bombs exploded in the town of Jalawla, 115 km (70 miles) northeast of Baghdad.
Although Kirkuk sits outside the three northern provinces administered by Kurdistan, ethnic Kurds lay historical claim to the city and say it should be part of the Kurdish region. The city’s Turkman minority also claim historical rights there.
A referendum to determine if Kurds are the dominant ethnicity, which would enhance their claim to Kirkuk and its oil riches, has been repeatedly shelved after Arabs and Turkmen accused Kurds of flooding the city with their kin.
Kurds say Iraq’s former Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein “Arabised” Kirkuk by encouraging Arabs to move there in the 1980s and 1990s.
Kurdistan has run its own government and armed forces since 1991 and is generally more secure and stable than other parts of Iraq. But the Kurdish region has increasingly clashed with Baghdad by signing oil agreements with companies like Exxon Mobil, deals the central government dismisses as illegal.
Reporting by Baghdad newsroom; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer