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Kirkuk's Displaced Still Homeless

Kurds find they are blocked from reclaiming land that was once theirs.
By Sirwan Gharib

Ali Kareem Mohammed sits in the glaring summer sun amid rows and rows of khaki-coloured tents once used by the Iraqi military. Nearby stands a large billboard that reads "Rubbish Disposal."

"I want the world to know that I'm living in a rubbish dump," shouted the 37-year old father of six.

Mohammed was driven out of Kirkuk in 2002 under the government’s programme of ethnic cleansing, but he returned to reclaim his house after the fall of the regime that had forced him out.

He is still waiting to get his house back.

"I cannot endure this any more," he said, a man defiant in his defeat. "I cannot bear to look at my occupied house from here."

Mohammed waved his hand towards his home which stands just beyond the 130 tents that have become his neighbourhood.

"If the situation continues like this I will have to take the law into my own hands," he said.

Mohammed lives in the tent city with nearly 800 other people who were forced out of the city years ago, and have returned to reclaim their homes given to Arab settlers from central and southern Iraq by the Baath regime as part of their effort to "Arabise" the oil-rich city and surrounding areas.

When the Baath regime fell last April, Mohammed and hundreds of thousands like him – Kurds, Turkoman, and Assyrian Christians – thought they could finally return to recover their houses, their jobs, their families, their lives, in the city they call home.

A few have returned but many others have not, according to Hasib Rozhbayani, an official dealing with internally displaced persons, IDPs, in the Kirkuk governorate.

Instead, in and around Kirkuk, 30,000 IDPs languish in tents and makeshift shelters in 61 different locations: the city's stadium, a former military camp, government buildings, and several tent cities and squatter settlements.

Nearly a year after the fall of the regime, the Coalition Provisional Authority, CPA, established the Iraq Property Claims Commission, IPCC, to register and settle property disputes.

They do register complaints, accepting those from as long ago as July 1968 and as recent as April 9, 2003. But so far, no dispute has been resolved by the IPCC.

Officials for the CPA have little to say about the lack of action except to repeat that Kirkuk is "complicated".

What is complicated about Kirkuk is the ethnic diversity of a key oil producing area and the legacy of decades of ethnic cleansing.

Beginning in the Sixties, the Baath regime's campaign of Arabisation was intended to alter the demographic balance by forcing the majority Kurds, and the smaller Turkoman and Christian communities, out of areas near the oilfields and replacing them with Arab settlers.

The campaign became more systematic in the 1970s when the Baath government set up the Revolutionary Command Council's Committee for Northern Affairs, headed by Saddam Hussein, who was tasked with the mass relocation of the non-Arab population.

Approximately one million Kurdish, Turkoman and Assyrian residents were forced out of hundreds of villages and towns near the oil fields that run in an arc from Khanaqin through Kirkuk towards Mosul.

Arab settlers, many hapless farmers from the south, were enticed northwards with free housing, property, farmland, and cash incentives. Ethnic minorities inside Kirkuk city were forced out later.

Laws were altered to make it difficult for Kurds to hold property or gain employment. Arabs were rewarded financially for marrying Kurdish women.

Birth certificates would not be registered unless the child bore an Arab name. Kurdish civil servants were moved out of Kurdistan to work in Arab districts, while Kurdish names were changed to Arabic names.

Documents confiscated from offices of the “mukhabarat” or intelligence service in Kirkuk after the 1991 uprising or after April 9 last year confirm the intent and the mechanisms of the ethnic cleansing campaign.

With the fall of Saddam Hussein's government, those who had been displaced assumed that they would be able to reclaim their property quickly.

But the CPA, backed by United States troops, discouraged claimants from returning, and actively supported the Arab settlers, some of whom have been living in the area for decades. Even Arabs who had left quickly returned when they saw that the US was allowing Arabs to remain.

The area of Beshir, 45 kilometres south of Kirkuk, is a case in point.

Turkoman families who had been forced off their land here returned after the war, and the Arab settlers left. But in April, emboldened by Muqtada al-Sadr's uprising in the south, the Arabs returned and reoccupied half of the land in the area, forcing some of the Turkoman out again.

In April, Muqtada’s representative in Kirkuk, Abd al-Fattah Musawi, a Shia who is himself a Turkoman, began making speeches inciting the Arabs, saying, "We assure you that we will not allow any Arab to be kicked out of his home."

Salah Beshiri, who had returned to live on the part of the land still in Turkoman hands, fears that he and his family will be next. Beshiri visits Kirkuk governorate authorities daily to tell them "the Arabs have violated the agreement". But so far, nothing has been done to reverse the reoccupation.

Incitement, together with CPA inaction, leaves the returnees with a sense of fear and frustration. Many predict violence between settlers and returnees.

"If the IPCC does not have a fair and clear policy, the Kurds and Turkoman will take the law into their own hands," said Azad Shekhani, who headed the IPCC until the end of April. "This will undoubtedly make the security situation deteriorate further."

According to Shekhani, "My removal was the beginning of the exposure of the CPA's real policy toward Kirkuk and the Kurds, which is to maintain the status quo and keep the Arab settlers."

The IPCC has eight lawyers who take complaints, but so far no judge has been appointed to arbitrate on the disputes.

Khadar Mokaram, one of the IPCC lawyers, says they have not brought cases to court because there is no Iraqi law to cover these land disputes.

"Unless we see a law printed in the Iraqi Law Gazette, we cannot act legally," he said. "This is one of the main difficulties for the committee."

Paul Harvey, the CPA head in Kirkuk, says the IDP issue is a very complicated one and "needs some time to be solved".

But time is running out.

The IDP's thwarted attempts to return to their homes and farms and the CPA’s slowness in resolving the could make for a long hot summer.

"We need another uprising in Kirkuk," said an IDP who did not want to be named, referring to the 1991 Kurdish uprising, "because my rights are still denied me."

Sirwan Gharib is reporter with Hawlati newspaper in Sulaimaniyah.

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