Baghdad: Iraq`s Kurdish-Arab tensions in the disputed Nineveh province may create a human rights catastrophe for minority groups that have faced rising attacks since the 2003 US invasion, a rights group said on Tuesday.
Baghdad`s Arab-led government and ethnic Kurds controlling a semi-autonomous northern enclave are battling over issues of wealth and power as the nation tries to thrash out tricky constitutional issues after the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein.
"Before we understood that we had a totalitarian government and therefore abuses happened. But now we are supposed to be free and democratic. This democracy is killing us," an Assyrian Christian elder was quoted as saying by Human Rights Watch.
Violence in the world`s 11th largest crude producer has fallen over the last two years, but bombings, drive-by shootings and other attacks are still common in Baghdad and the ethnically- and religiously-divided north.
The New York-based group said that minorities such as Chaldean Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks and others remain vulnerable to attacks by Sunni Arab extremists and intimidation from Kurdish forces in Nineveh.
"Iraqi Christians, Yazidis and Shabaks have suffered extensively since 2003," Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
"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."
Crusaders, devil worshipers and infidels
Human Rights Watch said since the 2003 US invasion, Kurdish authorities have moved into disputed territories to take control of areas that are rich in oil and ethnic diversity.
In the 1970s and 80s, Saddam encouraged thousands of Arab families to move to disputed areas under his "Arabisation" policy and the former ruler used forced displacement and killings to move that forward.
The 51-page report -- based on interviews during a three-week trip to northern Iraq -- accused Kurds of spending millions of Iraqi dinars to build a pro-Kurdish patronage network and of funding private militias to "protect" minorities.
"Minorities in Iraq find themselves in an increasingly precarious position as the Arab-dominated central government and the Kurdistan regional government vie for control of the disputed territories," the report said.
The nation`s minority groups have also faced brutal attacks by insurgent groups in Nineveh, especially in and around the province`s capital, Mosul. In August 2007, militants killed more than 300 Yazidis with explosive-laden trucks, the group said.
"Extremist elements among the insurgents have viciously attacked Chaldo-Assyrian, Yazidi and Shabak communities, labelling them crusaders, devil worshipers and infidels," the report said.
The situation for minorities will likely be complicated by the upcoming January parliamentary election where the groups are likely to ally with the nation`s bigger parties in a country still mired in sectarian politics.
"Everyone is willing to sacrifice us for their goals," farmer Avas Mohammed Jabar was quoted as saying.