The reason for his intervention is nine-year-old Ruyha is far more badly burned than her younger sibling. She is immobilised in the centre of the bed and her sheets are suspended above her so as not to touch her exposed flesh and scalded skin.

Given the extent of Ruyha's burns, the doctor estimates it will be at least eight months before they can grow and graft enough healthy skin to cover all the wounds. Ahmet's burns are severe, too; but limited to his face and hands. His left leg was also shattered by shrapnel.

All three members of the Fetah family are housed in a special burns ward at a hospital in Ankara. They were part of a badly wounded group of eight Iraqi survivors of a bombing in Tuz Khurmatu that were evacuated to Turkey for specialist medical treatment.

The reason the Turkish government extended its healthcare facilities to these patients is that the residents of Tuz Khurmatu are Iraqi Turkmen (Turkish-speaking indigenous Iraqi tribes). Beyond a shared language and culture, the approximately two million Iraqi Turkmen also represent a political foothold for Turkey in the oil rich regions of northern Iraq.

The Turkmen of Iraq are still not 
unified as a minority

Despite the fact they are facing increasing oppression from the Kurds and that they survived nearly 30 years of Saddam Hussein's naturalisation policies, the Turkmen of Iraq are not a unified minority.

As the 16 September bombing in Tuz Khurmatu illustrated, the underlying religious rift between Shia and Sunni Turkmen has suddenly escalated into a violent confrontation.

Punishments

The explosion occurred around 1.30pm (1030 GMT) on a Friday, just as the crowds were leaving a mosque. When the dust settled, there were 12 dead and 20 wounded lying in the bloody streets.

The group that said it carried out the attack was an extremist Turkmen faction of the Ansar al-Sunnah organisation which has links to al-Qaida. These Sunni Turkmen were recently forced out of the isolated enclave of Tal Afar following a full-scale US offensive in that city.

The Tuz Khurmatu bombing was meant to punish Shia Turkmen, which the Ansar al-Sunnah claims assisted the Americans in Tal Afar.

In an effort to demonstrate goodwill and ease tensions, the Iraqi Turkmen Front - an umbrella group representing both Shia and Sunni organisations - helped to facilitate the medical evacuation of the most grievously injured from Tuz Khurmatu.

Treatment denied

Immediately following the blast, the wounded were taken to the local clinic; but the limited facility there was soon overwhelmed. Within an hour, the citizens had organised a convoy of private cars to transfer the worst cases to a larger hospital in Kirkuk 50km away.

"The Kurdish police and officials in Tuz [Khurmatu] did nothing to help us and nothing to protect us," said Ahmed Hassan, the father of one of the victims.

"The Kurdish doctors in Kirkuk would have let our people die without treatment - and when we arranged the transfer to Turkey, they refused to pass along any of the medical files."

The facilities at at local clinics are
not adequate to treat all victims

To further obstruct the patients' move to Ankara, the Kurdish hospital director refused to provide the Kirkuk ambulances for the 10-hour drive across the Turkish border.

"In the end, we had to arrange for ambulances to be provided from Tikrit," explained Dr Ahmet Muratli, the director of the Ankara chapter of the Iraqi Turkmen Front. "Even though they are 120km from Kirkuk, the directors in Tikrit understood the need for compassion in this case - regardless of ethnic divisions."

Kurdish officials deny that there is any official policy of discrimination or subjugation towards the Iraqi Turkmen population. "We believe in a federal Iraq, where all people are treated as equals," Brigadier-General Mazir Yaher Ali Hassan, the commander of the Iraqi Army Brigade based in Tal Afar, told Aljazeera.net.

A former peshmerga (militia) officer with Massoud Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), Brigadier Hassan said that his decision to enroll in the new Iraqi army was based on his personal commitment to ensure "an undivided country".

Al-Sistani's call for peace

During the US-led invasion in March 2003, the peshmerga pushed south from their autonomous provinces to seize control of the Kirkuk region that had been under the Iraqi government's authority. The Kurds did not just lay claim to the oilfields of Baba Gurgur (outside Kirkuk) they also installed their own officials and military checkpoints in villages such as Tuz Khurmatu.

"When al-Sistani tells us to eat, we eat. When al-Sistani tells us to sleep, we sleep"

Ahnet Hassan,
Tuz Kharmatu bomb victim

To date, there has been tension between the Turkmen and their new overlords, but incidents of violence have been extremely rare. One reason given for this was that, despite provocation from both Sunni Turkmen and the Kurds, the residents of Tuz Kharmatu are taking their orders from Shia clerics such as Grand Ayat Allah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani.

"When al-Sistani tells us to eat, we eat. When al-Sistani tells us to sleep, we sleep," explained Hassan. "At the moment, al-Sistani is telling all Shia Iraqis to avoid seeking revenge for these attacks upon us - so we listen."

In this month's referendum on the proposed constitution, it is expected that the Shias and the Kurds will vote to pass the agreement. On the other hand, the Sunni Arabs and Sunni Turkmen are planning to vote against the constitution.