Mass migration jolting Kirkuk, 'the key to avoiding civil war'

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AP

KIRKUK, Iraq (AP), 16/9 2004 -
Kurds are on the move again in northern Iraq - but this time they're not fleeing.

As many as 500 Kurds a day streamed into Kirkuk last month, a land rush that took city officials and U.S. troops by surprise. The influx, which has slowed in September, leaves the fledgling city government of Kirkuk struggling to cope with dozens of refugee camps on once-vacant patches of ground.

Migrants like 60-year-old Tarek Salman Dawoud say they are reclaiming the ancestral city from which they were forced to flee under Saddam Hussein. He sent ethnic Arabs to live in the city, aiming to tighten control over its oil wealth. Kirkuk province alone sits atop 6 percent of the world's known oil reserves.

"This is our land. We've been here for thousands of years," Dawoud said, standing with other Kurds who shouted in assent. Just behind them, a sea of tents stretched across a few square miles of a former air base.

U.S. officials say the surge of people is in anticipation of the national elections slated for January. A strong showing for Kurdish leaders here could shift Kirkuk province firmly into the orbit of the Kurdish regions of the north.

Arab-Kurd tensions have been a feature since oil was discovered here in the 1930s, but they rose in the mid-1970s, when Saddam began asserting control. Human Rights Watch, based in New York, estimates that in the 1970s, about 250,000 Kurds, Turkmen and Assyrians were expelled from Kirkuk and other parts of northern Iraq to make way for Arabs.

"Every member of my family was exiled to the north," said Dawoud, who was forced to abandon his Kirkuk home in 1995.

Now that Saddam and his regime are gone and now that elections are nearing, Dawoud and tens of thousands of others are pouring back.

Already, refugees are building homes in the makeshift camps. Across the city, teams of men could be seen digging foundations and laying concrete blocks.

Officials monitoring the influx estimate that about 72,000 refugees, mainly Kurds, have arrived in and around the city in the past 18 months. Smaller numbers of Turkmen and Assyrian Christians also have returned.

At the same time, about 50,000 others, mainly Arabs who were encouraged to migrate here under Saddam, have fled.

Kurdish political parties have given money or building supplies to the new arrivals to help them reclaim their land, said U.S. Army Maj. Mike Davey of the 25th Infantry Division, which controls security in Kirkuk.

If they keep coming, the city of 750,000 could have 100,000 new residents before the election.

The flow is viewed with alarm by those who fear the Kurds will somehow leverage their self-rule into full-fledged statehood. U.S. officials oppose that, saying Iraq must remain unified. But neighboring Turkey, in particular, which has its own restive Kurdish minority, is not reassured.

Turkey's leaders "don't want the Kurds to get control of the oil here," said U.S. Army Col. Lloyd Miles. "Then they will have a source of income for an independent state."









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