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Bombings Expose Khanaqin Tensions

Kurdish and Arab residents increasingly at odds over former’s demand for town’s reincorporation into Kurdistan.
By Wirya Hama
For Mohammed Izadin, no sacrifice is too much to ask for Khanaqin. The Arabs have oppressed Kurds for 80 years, he said, and continue to do so by keeping this small, predominantly-Kurdish town as part of Diyala, a majority Arab province in Iraq.

"We want to reincorporate our town into the Kurdistan region," he said. "We will struggle for this until we die." At midday Friday prayers last week, two suicide bombers simultaneously blew themselves up as Shia worshippers gathered in the town's Sheikh Murad and Khanaqin Grand Mosques. The blasts killed 86 people and injured 45, according to major Abdullah Hussein, deputy chief of Khanaqin police. No one has taken responsibility for the attacks.

In the days after the attack, the small restive town on the border between the semi-autonomous Kurdish region and the mainly Arab province of Diyala was filled with funeral tents. Families spared by the attack were busy paying condolence visits to dozens of neighbours and friends who lost family members in the deadly attack. The bloody event may further foment tensions between Khanaqin's Kurdish residents and those who oppose reincorporating the town into the Kurdish region.

Khanaqin is located 55 kilometres northeast of Baghdad near the Iranian border. The county has population of about 140,000, 96 per cent of which is Kurdish. Three per cent is Arab and one per cent Turkmen. Nevertheless, it is under the administration of the mainly Arab province of Diyala.

Three of the five districts have been under Kurdish rule since Kurds gained autonomy over most Kurdish territories in 1991. The main part of the town, however, remained until April 2003 under the rule of Saddam Hussein, who sought to Arabise it.

He settled Arabs in Khanaqin, an oil-rich, hilly area dotted with Iraq's famous date trees, as part of a larger campaign in the 1980s to limit Kurdish control over areas they inhabit. The regime also moved many Shia Arabs to these territories to create tensions and gain tighter control over southern Iraq, a majority Shia area.

Kurdish families were deported to central sections of the county - many resettled in Arab provinces like Anbar. When it was incorporated into Diyala province, nearly all traces of Kurdish culture became extinct.

Date trees still surround the town today, although Saddam’s forces razed many plantations so that Kurdish Peshmarga forces who fought against Arabisation could not hide there. Ruins of many Kurdish villages destroyed by Saddam’s troops can still be seen around the town. Shortly after the fall of Saddam, Kurdish forces tried to turn back the clock. Many Arabs who were settled in Khanaqin under the former regime were expelled by force.

After the bombings, the distrust between the different ethnic groups has grown stronger. Arab day labourers were arrested and taken into custody. Some later reported that they were beaten by police.

Although officials have yet to say who they believe was behind the bombings, there’s speculation that they were the work of Arabs angry with Khanaqin's efforts to remove Arab settlers and reincorporate the town into Kurdistan. "They cannot stop the democratic cause," said Dilshad Abdullah, a 23-year-old journalist who was forced to leave Khanaqin in 1998.

In the last three years, an increasing number of displaced citizens from Khanaqin have returned to their hometown. Many had not seen their birthplace for more than 20 years.

Jasim Ali, 29, an Arab resident, told IWPR, "The Kurds are right; we are not native Arabs (of the town). The Arab settlers were very bad. They wanted to spoil the historic relations between us and the Kurds. It is true that Khanaqin is part of Kurdistan." He also said that their living conditions improved, "Now people are free. No one is hurt. Everyone is busy with earning their living if the Diyala governor leaves us alone."

The small Arab population is divided on two fronts. The native Arabs of the town generally support the reincorporation of the town into the Kurdish region. But those who settled by the former regime strongly oppose such a move and do not want to be kicked out of the town.

Kazim Mohammed, 50, acknowledged that Arabs settled Kurdish lands under Saddam but said it was unfair to uproot them now, “ I have been here for 20 years, and my future is dependent on this town. After all this, where should I go?!"

Officials maintained that while Khanaqin is technically part of Diyala, it’s primarily supported by the Kurdistan regional government which pays the salaries of civil servants and takes charge of reconstruction projects.

Kurdish support poured in following the bombings. Hussein said victims were sent for treatment in the Kurdish cities of Kelar and Sulaimaniyah. The prime minister of the Kurdish regional government Omar Fatah said it will rebuild the two mosques and promised financial support for victims' families.

Diyala governor Raed Rashid al-Mula Jwad visited the town after the attack but did not offer any help, said Hussein.

Arab officials do not have a connection to Khanaqin "and that's why they do not serve it", said Mohammed Amin Hassan, the town's district commissioner. He said Diyala wants to maintain control of Khanaqin for its oil but is unwilling to invest in the town.

Although he works in a government office, Hassan refuses to fly the Iraqi flag because he cannot fly the flag of Kurdistan. He and others pushing for Khanaqin to become part of Iraqi Kurdistan have taken their case to the now-dissolved Iraqi Governing Council and political leaders including Iraq president Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

Iraqi authorities responded that the future of the town should be decided in accordance with laws addressing disputed Kurdish territories such as Kirkuk. The government promised to move settlers out of disputed territories and compensate both settlers and displaced Iraqis but has not addressed the problems yet.

The main Kurdish political parties, the PUK and Kurdistan Democratic Party, support the movement to make Khanaqin part of semiautonomous Kurdistan.

"Khanaqin and its people are an undivided part of Kurdistan," said Muhsin Ali Akbar, head of the PUK in Khanaqin. "We will continue our struggle and will not accept any decision made against the people of Khanaqin."

Wirya Hama Tahir an IWPR trainee journalist in Khanaqin.

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