KIRKUK, Iraq, June 15 (Reuters) - More than 250 Arabs and dozens of Turkmen have been seized off the streets of Kirkuk or arrested in U.S.-Iraqi raids and sent to prisons in Kurdish northern Iraq, Arab officials in the city said on Wednesday.
Ahmed al-Obeidi, secretary general of the Iraqi Republican Gathering, a small Arab party, said the arrests had started shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, but had become more common since an election in January, when Kurdish parties gained influence in Kirkuk's local council.
Kirkuk's Kurdish police chief denied arrests were made on ethnic grounds but said some detainees were sent to Kurdish prisons. The Washington Post, quoting U.S. documents, suggested U.S. forces knew of irregular detentions and the U.S. embassy in Iraq said it was concerned about tensions in the city.
"We have documents and information confirming that around 250 people are detained in Kurdish prisons in Arbil and Sulaimaniya," Obeidi told Reuters in the disputed city, claimed by Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen and known for its oil wealth.
"Some of them we know exactly where they are and others we have no idea. We have talked to the Kurdish authorities about it, and so far we have managed to get 40 people released," Obeidi said, adding that four of those freed were former members of the Iraqi air force under Saddam.
Kurdish officials in the city denied that any raids or arrests had specifically targeted Arabs or Turkmen, saying criminal or militant suspects were frequently rounded up and sent to jails in the north because other jails were full.
"There are some prisoners in Arbil and Sulaimaniya, but they are regular prisoners arrested for crimes," said Lieutenant-General Shirko Shakar Hassan, a Kurd who is the chief of police in Kirkuk.
Kirkuk's police force includes Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, but locals say Kurds are dominant, with more than 50 percent of the force Kurdish by some estimates.
That dominance has caused tensions to rise in the city over the past two years. Each group claims to have the largest population in the city of around one million, and historically each has a claim to having roots there.
The Washington Post, quoting U.S. government documents and families of the victims, said on Wednesday detainees had been abducted by police and security units led by Kurdish political parties and sometimes with the knowledge of U.S. forces.
The newspaper said it had obtained a confidential State Department cable addressed to the White House, Pentagon and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
The cable described the detentions as being part of a "concerted and widespread initiative" by Kurdish political parties "to exercise authority in Kirkuk in an increasingly provocative manner", the newspaper said.
The June 5 cable said the abductions had "greatly exacerbated tensions along purely ethnic lines" and endangered U.S. credibility, the report said.
A U.S. embassy spokesman in Baghdad said he was concerned about the security situation in Kirkuk.
During Saddam Hussein's rule, Kirkuk was subject to an "Arabisation" policy aiming to change the ethnic balance of the strategic oil city by offering Arab migrants homes and economic incentives. The plan angered Kurds and Turkmen.
After the U.S-led invasion, Kurds returned to the city in large numbers and have had an ever-growing influence over the city, to the dismay of Arabs and Turkish-speaking Turkmen.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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