UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
IRAQ: Kirkuk's time-bomb could explode at any time
BAGHDAD, 22 Jan 2007 (IRIN) - In a series of articles, IRIN documents the levels of violence and consequent needs of the population in six different areas of the country. Scroll to the bottom of the page for links to the other articles in the series.
The oil-rich city of Kirkuk, some 290km north of the capital, Baghdad, was long considered a microcosm of Iraq with its diversity of ethnic and religious groups. With Turkomen, Kurds, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Arabs living together in peace, it was a melting pot of the various communities that reflected Iraq’s demographic makeup.
However, the government of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein changed all that. Its ‘Arabisation’ policy in the early 1980s and during the 1990s forced tens of thousands of Kurds and other non-Arabs to flee Kirkuk. They were replaced with pro-government Arabs from the impoverished south.
But after the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 brought Saddam’s rule to an end, Kirkuk was widely seen as a tinderbox as Kurds and other non-Arabs streamed back with their house keys in hand only to find their homes were either sold or given to Arabs.
Tens of thousands of returning Kurds found nowhere to live except abandoned government buildings and parks. They became displaced in their own hometown. At the same time, many Arabs were forced to leave the city, despite Sunni and Shi'ite Arab leaders pleading them not to. As a result, areas that were once 80 percent Arab became 80 percent Kurd.
Since then, the city of more than one million residents has witnessed escalating violence with bombings, assassinations and shootings directed against civilians, Iraqi security forces, US forces and political rivals.
No accurate figures for victims of violence in Kirkuk over the past three years are available. However, from the beginning of 2006 until 20 January 2007, 348 people were killed and 1,474 injured, according to Lt Col Anwar Hussein of the city’s police force.
Those killed include 121 civilians, 92 policemen, 64 soldiers and 69 unidentified dead bodies, apparently victims of death squads, found with their hands and legs bound and with torture marks on their bodies.
“The past year was a bloody one for the residents of Kirkuk from all backgrounds. Violence ranged from suicide attacks by car bombs and explosive belts to roadside bombs against Iraqi security forces and the US army. There were also assassinations of political rivals and high-ranking government officials," Hussein said.
“All of Iraq’s problems are represented here in this city. There is sectarian violence between various religious sects and violence between different ethnic groups. There have been insurgents’ attacks against Iraqi and US forces and there have also been acts of violence by local criminal gangs," Hussein added.
Kurds say they are the dominant ethnic group in Kirkuk and would like the city to be part of the Kurdish autonomous region, otherwise known as Kurdistan, which stretches across Iraq’s north-east. But geography works against them. Kirkuk lies just south of Kurdistan. Kurdish leaders want to annex the city, but Iraq’s new constitution calls for a census and referendum on the issue by the end of next year.
Until then, a demographics game continues to be played in Kirkuk.
The new Iraqi government has adopted a policy of ‘normalising’ Kirkuk. This means repatriating to Kirkuk those Kurds who were expelled by Saddam and resettling Arabs to outlying villages or to their ancestral homes in southern Iraq.
“The quicker the government solves Kirkuk’s ethnic problems, the sooner security will prevail and all kinds of violence will end,” Jabar Khoja Ali, a political analyst from Kirkuk, said. “Kirkuk is the most important province in Iraq [it sits on about 60 percent of the country’s oil] and the government should find solutions very quickly, otherwise all Iraq will explode once large-scale violence erupts in Kirkuk," Ali added.
Displaced families and humanitarian needs
Kirkuk's major humanitarian problem is meeting the needs of the huge number of displaced people there.
Nearly 200,000 Kurds have returned to Kirkuk since the US-led occupation of Iraq began in 2003, according to Rebwar Talabani, deputy head of Kirkuk provincial council. This is in addition to more than 3,500 Arab families, around 17,500 individuals, who fled escalating sectarian violence in other provinces after the 22 February 2006 bombing of a revered Shi’ite shrine in the northern city of Samarra.
“We can't do more than offer them these places [public buildings and tents in parks] until the government holds the referendum and then they [the government] will find a solution for their problem by helping them build their houses," Talabani added.
Aid workers say these families are living in miserable conditions which are worsening as winter temperatures start falling below zero degrees Celsius.
"These families have no access to potable water or appropriate sanitation systems as most of them live in tents or abandoned government buildings, which lack these things," said Ahmed Haqi Nadhim, a volunteer with the Iraqi Red Crescent Society (IRCS) in Kirkuk.
"We are in dire need of blankets, heaters and heavy clothes to help these families, especially the children, cope with the cold weather," Nadhim added.
Nashmil Rashid, a 44-year-old Kurdish mother of three boys, has to walk nearly two kilometres every two days to reach a residential area where people donate potable water for her children.
“Children are not like us. They can't withstand these harsh conditions and it is very hard for them to recover from diseases, especially gastrointestinal ones," Rashid said, adding that five children and four women, who were living in tents in the city’s stadium, died recently as a result of drinking polluted water.
This material comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Quotations or extracts should include attribution to the original sources. All materials copyright © UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2007
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