The ongoing dispute between Iraq's central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish authorities in the country's north threatens to create a "human rights catastrophe" for minority communities in the region, a leading rights watchdog warned in a report Tuesday.
The report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch said the small groups in the area _ such as Christians, Shabaks and Yazidis _ have been targeted by insurgents and are stuck in the middle between the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan and the government in Baghdad, the report said.
"Iraqi Christians, Yazidis, and Shabaks have suffered extensively since 2003," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at HRW. "Iraqi authorities, both Arab and Kurdish, need to rein in security forces, extremists and vigilante groups to send a message that minorities cannot be attacked with impunity."
The 51-page report, released in the Kurdish city of Irbil, criticizes the central government for failing to protect the minority groups, but also levels a long list of criticism against Kurdish authorities.
It accused them of intimidating those who resists Kurdish "expansionist plans," carrying out arbitrary arrests and detentions. The report cited attempts by Kurdish authorities to win favor with some minority groups by, for example, paying for new places of worship.
The report said the long-standing territorial dispute between northern Iraq's Kurds and the Arab-dominated government threatens to erupt again. "It risks creating another full-blown human rights catastrophe for the small minority communities who have lived there throughout the ages," the report said.
Under former dictator Saddam Hussein's regime, hundreds of thousands of Kurds and other minorities were expelled from their homes and ethnic Arabs moved in, changing the area's demographics and ethnic balance. After Saddam's overthrow, Kurds have argued much of this territory belongs to them.
The oil-rich city of Kirkuk has long been one of the key flashpoints in this debate. Kurds claim it as theirs, while many Arabs argue the Kurds are trying to flood the city with new Kurdish residents to tip the balance in their favor.
The Kurdish-Arab debate over voting rights in the city threatened to derail a key election law needed to carry out Iraq's nationwide balloting in January, but lawmakers struck a compromise on Sunday.
HRW also focused on the issue of the Ninevah province, with its large mix of minority groups and where Kurds have been trying to extend their influence. Kurdish gains have alienated many Sunni Arabs there and have helped turn the province's capital of Mosul into one of the last hotbeds in the insurgency, the report details.
The minorities have often been targeted by devastating insurgent attacks, HRW said. It cited the late 2008 insurgent campaign that left 40 Chaldo-Assyrians dead and drove thousands more from their homes in Mosul. In 2007, more than 500 members of the Yazidi minority were killed by suicide truck bombs in the small village of Qahataniya.
After July and August bombings of minorities in Ninevah, the American military commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, proposed joint patrols made up of U.S., Kurdish and Iraqi military troops, but those plans have not materialized.
In a statement on its Web site Tuesday, the Kurdish government denied the HRW report's charges and said it demonstrates a "systematic misperception of the circumstances in Ninevah and a worrying ignorance of Iraqi history."
The statement said the Kurdish government insists on tolerance throughout Iraq and blamed insurgents for attacks on minorities.
"The main thrust of this report could be grossly misleading," the statement said, adding that the Kurdish regional government "has done more for the protection of minorities than any other entity in Iraq, and continues to insist on tolerance and peaceful coexistence."
But Yahya Ghazi, in charge of the human rights bureau of Iraqi Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi, said his office has contacts with minorities in Mosul and the surrounding areas. He said the government knows the weight of the problems they are facing and is trying to assist them.