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Property Disputes Fuel Tension in Kirkuk

But Kurdish owners and Arab residents are searching for non-violent ways of resolving the problems.
By Muhammad Fawzi

Two years ago, Raad Muhammad – then a civil servant from southern Iraq based in the northern town of Kirkuk – spotted an advertisement at the local real estate office offering a 400 square-metre home that he could rent from the state.

Muhammad took the house even though the floor was incomplete, the interior walls unpainted and the front wall about to collapse.

He spent 1.5 million dinars (approximately 1,000 US dollars) to renovate the place, and lived there from the autumn of 2002 until the early summer of 2003.

Then the home's original owner came knocking. Like many of Kirkuk's Kurdish population, Kaka ("Brother") Sabah had run foul of the regime.

Sabah said he was accused of connections with the government of Iran, and forced to flee Kirkuk, his property confiscated.

The dispute between Muhammad and Sabah is one of many across the north.

Tens of thousands of Kurds, Turkmen and other non-Arabs were expelled during the Baathist regime's "Arabisation" campaign.

The aim was to alter the ethnic balance in the oil-rich city by bringing in Arabs, many of them from the impoverished Shia south, to occupy the confiscated houses.

The resulting disputes have not always been resolved amicably.

After last year’s war, thousands of Arab families fled south. Some claimed that returning Kurdish refugees or peshmerga guerrillas had expelled them – actions Kurd leaders denounced.

The property issue feeds ethnic tensions in Kirkuk, which is claimed by many Kurds as part of a federal Kurdistan, a claim opposed by many Arabs and Turkmen in the city.

Kirkuk has been torn by assassinations, bombings and other violence since the fall of the regime.

Now, however, Kurdish property owners and Arab residents – along with Coalition and Iraqi government officials – are searching for non-violent ways of resolving the disputes.

Kaka Sabah – an elderly, taciturn man dressed in traditional Kurdish headscarf and baggy trousers - and Raad Muhammed agreed to submit the issue to arbitration by members of their tribes.

After a week of meetings, the arbitrators awarded Sabah the house on condition that he reimbursed Muhammed for the 1.5 million dinars’ worth of repairs.

"I paid 1.5 million [to Muhammed] as compensation... to make him satisfied and for him to get another home," Sabah said.

Muhammed agreed, if reluctantly, "I complied because I wanted to end the problem between me and Kaka Sabah."

However, he added, "I am frustrated. I spent a lot of money, and wore myself out fixing this house."

Government officials are endeavouring to put a system in place to resolve such disputes.

"We are trying to secure everyone's rights," said Abass Hussein Alwan, a board member on the newly formed Iraq Property Claims Commission, PCC.

The PCC is collecting documents that show ownership of homes in the area in order to resolve disputes, Alwan said.

In addition, he said, the Kurdish Regional Government, KRG, is collecting money to compensate Arabs who give up their homes to their returning Kurdish owners.

The KRG, he said, will pay 3,500 dollars to the occupant of a confiscated house who either bought or rented it from the former Iraqi government, provided the occupant has no connections with the Baath party.

While the commission gathers documents, however, tens of thousands of Kurdish refugees still live in squalid conditions in refugee camps in the self-rule area or in squatter settlements in Kirkuk. (see Kirkuk’s Displaced Still Homeless [http://www.iwpr.net/index.pl?archive/irq/irq_68_2_eng.txt] by Sirwan Gharib, ICR No. 68, June 14 2004)

Although tribal arbitration can resolve many disputes, in some cases the Kurdish former owners resort to less peaceful methods.

Kirkuk police say some Kurdish strongmen now specialise in evicting Arab families from former Kurdish homes.

Recently, police say, they arrested one of the more notorious strongmen, but were unable to detain for long him due to his political connections. “He was backed by influential people," said Colonel Sami Yousif, the head of Kirkuk's Rahim Awa police station.

But some police officers sympathise with Kurds who resort to such measures.

Rahim Awa police lieutenant Muhammad Farhan said they are “obliged" to hire strongmen, "There is no law to guarantee their rights, and no government to compensate them or return their looted property."

Muhammad Fawzi is an IWPR trainee in Baghdad.

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