Some Kurds want Arabs out of Iraqi city
Wext: Monday, 27.September. @ 00:00:00 CEST
KIRKUK, Iraq, 25 / 09 / 2004 ( AP ) — A tense confrontation is building in this refugee-swollen city, with hardline Kurdish politicians demanding the departure of some 200,000 Arabs who settled here during a 30-year government campaign of Arab migration to oil-rich parts of northern Iraq.
"The Arabs must go back," Azad Jindyany, director of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan's media office, said in the northern city of Sulaimaniyah this week. "This is the central policy for every Kurdish party and all Kurdish movements."
Kurdish parties appear to be trying to recreate a majority they held long ago in the contested province, traditionally a multiethnic place with Christians, Turkomen and some Arabs who trace their roots back hundreds of years.
An August report from New York-based Human Rights Watch said the hardline Kurdish position underscores a "dramatic change in power relations in northern Iraq" that has left Arab families "almost completely powerless" and Kurdish parties creating conditions for "a major confrontation."
Army Maj. Gen. John Batiste, U.S. commander in the region, said the province's fast-changing demographics are the hottest long-term security threat in northern Iraq.
"We've got to work hard now so it doesn't become a civil war," Batiste said in a briefing on the U.S. Army base in Tikrit. If Kirkuk disintegrates into war, "we'll be right in the middle of it."
A Sunni Arab councilman for Kirkuk province, Mohammed Khalil Nasif, said the hardline demands for reversal of the previous government's Arabization policy sound almost as drastic as the original ethnic cleansing policy itself.
"If the Kurds do the same thing, it'll be the Kurdization program," Nasif said before a recent council session in this city of 750,000. "We don't believe in fixing a wrong with a wrong. If a refugee comes back and wants to kick someone else out, we don't approve. Kirkuk is big enough for everyone."
It is unclear how the Kurdish parties will pursue the removal of Arabs from Kirkuk if the Arabs wish to stay. Iraq's U.S.-approved national laws allow Iraqis to live where they choose.
Jindyany said the new law doesn't apply to Arabs who were given Kurdish homes and land by the deposed government of Saddam Hussein, whose moves to solidify control of the oil-rich cities of Kirkuk and nearby Khanaqin brought hundreds of thousands of Arabs to northern Iraq. A similar number of Kurds were forced from their homes in the process.
"Kirkuk must be restored" to the Kurds, Jindyany said. "After it's restored, anyone is free to move anywhere in Iraq."
Few Arabs want to return south, Nasif said. Often they were coaxed north from desert areas or poor Shiite Muslim villages. After living as long as 30 years in wealthier, more temperate Kirkuk, they have roots in the area.
"This is their home," Nasif said.
The resurgent Kurds are being closely watched by leaders of Kirkuk's Arab and Turkomen communities, as well as by the U.S. military, which still operates several bases around Kirkuk and enforces a nightly curfew here.
The government of neighboring Turkey has said Kirkuk should remain a multiethnic city, and not the capital of an enlarged Iraqi Kurdistan, the autonomous northern area. Turkey, which counts a huge Kurdish minority, has said it will block any Iraqi Kurdish steps toward independence.
Thus far, the ongoing return of some 70,000 Kurdish refugees has been marked by its lack of violence. Most Arab leaders in the region have spoken cautiously about the issue.
"We Arabs welcome the Kurdish refugees to come back to Kirkuk," Nasif said.
Batiste and other U.S. officials are trying to calm the confrontation by pleading for action from the Iraqi claims compensation committee, which is supposed to grant money or land to Arabs willing to leave. The committee might also settle with Kurds by giving them new land and housing funds, he said.
"It doesn't have to be a train wreck," Batiste said. "There are certainly some Kurds and Turkomen and Arabs who are very hardline on this. But I think there's a way of doing it."
Batiste said the basic solution hinged on the idea that each ethnicity has a place in Kirkuk, but some Arabs "need to move back to where they came from."
The general acknowledged that the government's compensation process has failed to solve any of the 6,000 claims already filed in northern Iraq, leaving Kurdish political parties to push refugees to begin homesteading in Kirkuk.
"One and a half years after deposing Saddam Hussein, the government hasn't started any process to address our claims, so the people are simply returning back," Jindyany said. "They don't want to lose their chance, or their land."
Ultimately, hundreds of thousands of people could file claims for compensation with Baghdad. The United Nations found some 800,000 displaced Kurds inside the northern autonomous area, many of whom were pushed out of Kirkuk. That figure includes refugees displaced by intra-Kurdistan fighting between militias controlled by the two chief parties.
The Kurdish parties are also after a second goal: restoring Kirkuk to its original area before Saddam lopped off outlying Kurdish lands and transferred them to four neighboring provinces as part of the Arabization campaign. The restoration would tilt the population even further toward a Kurdish majority.
"All the parts that were cut off must be restored," Jindyany said.
On the Net:
Human Rights Watch report: http://hrw.org/reports/2004/iraq0804