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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

IRAQ: Arabs leave Kirkuk ahead of referendum

KIRKUK, 26 February 2007 (IRIN) - Sheikh Muhssin al-Zaidi, 45, is sad to be leaving Kirkuk, the northern city he has lived in since the early 1980s. He disagrees with the ‘Arabisation’ policy of former president Saddam Hussein’s government that brought him there but now he has agreed to comply with the current government’s decision that he and tens of thousands of other Arabs move back.

“Leaving the city where we raised our children and which we got used to is not an easy decision but as long as there is an historic mistake that was made by Saddam’s regime and we are its victims, then we have to go back to our homes,” said al-Zaidi, a Shia Arab who was part of Saddam’s campaign to flood Kirkuk with Arabs and cleanse the city of Kurds, who the Baathist government deemed a threat.

Twenty years ago, al-Zaidi was given thousands of dollars in cash and a free apartment in Kirkuk to move from his home in Baghdad, which is 290km to the south. Now, his family is among 6,850 Arab families who recently agreed to a decision by a governmental committee early in February to relocate tens of thousands of mostly Shia Arabs.

The Iraqi Higher Committee for the Normalisation of Kirkuk decided that 20 million Iraqi dinars (about US $15,000) compensation would be given to those who arrived in Kirkuk during the ‘Arabisation’ campaign and who would move out now. In addition, they would be given land in their home towns. Yet the committee’s decision still needs to be endorsed by the Iraqi cabinet.

Monetary compensation

“All the Arabs who moved to the city from other parts of Iraq after 14 July 1968 and until 9 April, 2003 will be returned to their original towns and given monetary compensation,” said Sadiq Kaka Rash, a member of the governmental committee.

Saddam’s Ba’ath party took power Iraq in a military coup in 1968 and it fell following the US-led invasion of Iraq on 9 April, 2003.

“They [the Arabs] have to relocate themselves as soon as possible before this year’s referendum as they have no right to take part in it,” Rash added.

Iraq’s current constitution, which was approved in a national referendum on 15 October, 2005, calls for a separate referendum on Kirkuk’s future by the end of this year. The Kurds, who say that Kirkuk is Kurdish, want to incorporate the city and its rich oilfields into their self-ruled region - a move which has been strongly opposed by the Turkomen and Arabs.

Tens of thousands of Kurds and non-Arabs fled Kirkuk in the early 1980s and during the 1990s when Saddam’s government implemented its ‘Arabisation’ policy. Kurds and non-Arabs were replaced with pro-government Arabs from the mainly Shia but impoverished south.

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 became displaced in their own hometown as they found nowhere to live except in parks and abandoned government buildings. At the same time, many Arabs were forced to leave the city, despite Sunni and Shia Arab leaders pleading them not to.

In danger of violence

“We don't want to put our children and women in danger of violence,” said Qader Haqi Tawfiq, 50, who, like al-Zaidi, is an Arab who has decided to move his family out of Kirkuk. “We hope that our Kurdish brothers don’t get us wrong and that they fully understand that we were living in a hard time [under Saddam’s rule] when we benefited from the privileges which were given to Arabs,” Tawfiq added.

But other Arabs do not agree and still claim right to Kirkuk.

“Kirkuk is my home and they [Kurds] will not take my house unless they kill me,” said Jaber Farhan Mohammed, 43, a Shia Arab supermarket owner who came to Kirkuk in 1983. “We will fight until the last drop of our blood. There is still land [around Kirkuk] that can be given to the Kurds if the government wants to help them,” Mohammed added.

The oil-rich city of Kirkuk 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.

But this is no longer the case. In the past three weeks, Kirkuk has suffered a wave of bombings; including six car bombs on one day alone. Some of the bombings took place in Kurdish neighbourhoods and others in Arab ones. Nearly 50 civilians have been killed as a result and more than 100 wounded.

No accurate figures are available for Arabs in Kirkuk but the last ethnic breakdown census in Iraq, which was conducted in 1957, showed that there were 178,000 Kurds, 48,000 Turkomen, 43,000 Arabs and 10,000 Assyrian-Chaldean Christians living in the city.

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Copyright © IRIN 2007
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
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