Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Arabs Encounter Prejudice in Kurdistan

Visitors from the south of the country increasingly viewed with suspicion.
By Sarhang Hama

The sight of Iraqi Arabs in their traditional dishdash and cars with license plates from central and southern governorates like Baghdad, Dyala and Anbar has become commonplace on the streets of Sulaimaniyah since the war.


Some Arabs visit Kurdistan as tourists; some come seeking jobs; others just want respite from the often dangerous conditions in the rest of the country.


Three Kurdish governorates have been semi-independent since 1992 when central government withdrew from the area and left the Kurds to govern themselves under the protection of US and UK warplanes.


But Iraqi Arabs who visit Iraqi Kurdistan increasingly claim they experience hostility and unfair treatment at the hands of their Kurdish hosts.


After the war, they were initially welcomed by hotel and restaurant managers who saw them as tourists with money to spend, but now Arabs are increasingly viewed with suspicion, especially by Kurdish security forces.


Those security forces are intent on keeping suicide bombers off their streets and they view Arab citizens as possible enemies.


"This my first visit in Kurdistan," said Tariq Ismail, 52, from Baquba. "But I regret coming here. The Kurds think every Arab is a Saddam Hussein."


Arab visitors increasingly find they are singled out as potential security risks.


Arabs who register at hotels must first get permission from local security, while Kurds and foreigners in Kurdistan do not have to obtain such a permit.


In other parts of Iraq, no one is even asked for security clearance.


Ismail said that when he and his wife and children tried to park their car in a garage, they were told they could not because as Arabs their car was suspect.


Another 25-year-old Baghdadi Arab, who shared a hotel in Sulaimaniyah with Ismail, said his experience with the Kurds was worse than under the Baath regime.


When he stopped at a security checkpoint, Sulaimaniyah officials thought his name was on a list of suspects. They took him into custody for several hours where he says he was treated "badly".


When he asked to use the toilet, he was told to urinate in his trousers. "Human beings should not be treated that way," he said.


Some Arab visitors submit to the additional scrutiny as an understandable, and even welcomed, precaution.


"Only Arabs are inspected at the checkpoints," said Ahmed Rasheed, 31, a Baghdadi, explaining that "the Kurds want to protect their security".


He surmises that the long-time Arab persecution has left the Kurds hostile. "Judging by their Baathist experience, the Kurds think all Arabs are occupiers," he said.


Not all Arab visitors feel hostility from Kurdish hosts.


"There is no discrimination," said Salah Kaduri, 35, from Baghdad, who often travels to Sulaimaniyah with his wife.


Kaduri says that Kurdish checkpoint officials are courteous, and he appreciates the safety and security in the Kurdish streets.


Some Arabs who have made Kurdistan their home think there are Kurds who harbour a deep-rooted animosity towards Arabs, and that it is increasingly articulated.


Jamal Abdul Kareem, 42, has lived in Kurdistan for 18 years and speaks Kurdish fluently.


He points to a complex of factors that leave the Kurds with a distrust of their Arab compatriots, including "the effect of Baath, cultural differences, and the Kurdish fear of the future".


He speculates that the Kurdish claim for concern for their security is "only a cover for the old grudge they bear".


Ala Najmadeen, 37, a dentist, recently left Baghdad because of the "bad security situation" and moved to Kurdistan to set up a practice.


He tried to rent a house for his family but found that Arabs must pay an additional security deposit on top of already high rental rates.


Frustrated, he returned to Baghdad after one month.


Najmadeen is one of scores of professionals who have moved to Kurdistan seeking a safer environment.


More than 250 university professors have been killed since the fall of the regime, and another 1,000 have fled the country. Many other professionals, doctors in particular, have also been targeted.


The problems encountered by Iraqi Arabs in Kurdistan are in many ways typical of newcomers anywhere. And many Kurds welcome Arab visitors.


"I believe in living together and accepting each other," said Abdullah Ahmed, 26, a Sulaimaniyah Kurd who works for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.


But it's not hard to find Kurdish voices who admit to a strong sense of animosity towards their compatriots.


"When I see an Arab walking in Sulaimaniyah, I cannot help hating him," said Rebaz Hama Salih, 24. He admits this feeling is not rational but said he cannot control his emotions.


All he can think about, he says, is the extensive suffering of the Kurds at the hands of Arab-majority Iraqi regimes.


But others say their antagonism is also directed towards the Arabs as a nationality.


"When Kurds were persecuted, it was the fault of the Arab nation not only the Iraqi government," said Wrya Sofi, 20, a Kurd from Kalar.


For Sofi, the recent expulsion of Kurds from several majority Arab cities in central Iraq is another reason for the Kurdish hatred towards the Arabs.


Thousands of Kurds have been forced out of cities like Fallujah and Samara simply because they are Kurds.


"When I see displaced Kurds who did not leave from fear of the Baath but rather from fear of the people of area," Sofi said, "I realise I hate Arabs, not the Baath."


Sarhang Hama Salih is editor-in-chief of Liberal Education, a youth-oriented newspaper in Sulaimaniyah.


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