UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
IRAQ: Ethnic tensions in Kirkuk take a dangerous turn
BAGHDAD, 7 Feb 2007 (IRIN) - Nearly 500 Arabs took to the streets on Wednesday morning in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, some 290km north of the capital, Baghdad, denouncing a decision by a governmental committee to relocate tens of thousands of mostly Shi’ite Arabs currently living in the city.
“We vehemently reject this decision. We will not leave Kirkuk by force or without force. If they [Kurds] try to force us out of the city, then there will be dangerous reactions against them,” said Sheikh Raad al-Najafi, 37, an Arab Shi’ite religious cleric at the Kirkuk office of the radical Shi'ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr.
“Implementing this decision is against the benefit of Iraq in general, and Kirkuk in particular, in terms of security and stability," al-Najafi told IRIN in a telephone interview while he was taking part in the demonstration.
On Sunday, the Iraqi Higher Committee for the Normalisation of Kirkuk ruled that Arabs who moved to the city from other parts of Iraq after 14 July 1968 – when the Ba’athist party of former president Saddam Hussein came to power - would be returned to their original towns and given monetary compensation.
“A compensation of 20 million Iraqi dinars [about $ US 15,000] will be given to those who arrived in Kirkuk during the ‘Arabisation’ campaign of Saddam’s government, in addition to giving them land in their home towns,” said Kamilia Ibrahim, a Kurdish legislator familiar with the work of the committee.
She added that the committee’s decision would need to be sent to the Iraqi cabinet for endorsement.
“Why should I leave? Kirkuk is an Iraqi city and I'm an Iraqi citizen,” said Awad al-Salihi, 52, a father-of-six who moved to Kirkuk in 1984 from the southern city of Basra.
“We will not leave Kirkuk by force and we will defend out existence here,” al-Salihi added.
Tens of thousands of Kurds and non-Arabs fled Kirkuk in the early 1980s and during the 1990s when the Saddam government implemented its ‘Arabisation’ policy. Kurds and non-Arabs 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.
The returning Kurds found nowhere to live except in parks and abandoned government buildings. 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 which reached its peak last weekend when five suicide bomb attacks claimed the lives of 11 civilians and injured 50 others.
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