KIRKUK – "When someone has the power, he will take everything," says retired soldier Mohammed Hassan Mohammed in a Shia mosque in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk.
Like most Shia Arabs in this oil-rich city, his family came here in the 1980s during Saddam’s massive campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Kurds. Like most Shias here, his family came from the Iraqi military. And like most Shias here, he rejects Kurdish claims that Kirkuk is a part of Kurdistan.
What about claims that Saddam killed or forcibly removed more than 100,000 Kurds from Kirkuk and replaced them with Arabs, I ask. "What they say is very correct," he says, "but when you see what they’re doing, it’s like what Saddam Hussein was doing."
But Kurdish leaders are firm. They want all the Arabs who came to Kirkuk since 1975 to leave. Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) chief Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish candidate for president or prime minister of Iraq, has made the repatriation of Arabs from Kirkuk a non-negotiable point for a Kurdish-Shia governing coalition in Baghdad.
Younger Arabs find the conflict simply ridiculous. Like a whole generation of Arabs, 24-year-old medical resident Ali Falah has lived his whole life in Kirkuk. "This is my home," he says. "All of the time we feel the problem of the Kurdish policy here, but we don’t agree with that. I feel that Kirkuk city is like a mixture of all the types of people in Iraq. Like a small state. For what reason are we fighting each other? Why can’t we live as brothers? As Iraqi people. That’s all."
But he feels that dream is slipping. The red, white, and green Kurdish flag flies throughout the city. All important government offices are now staffed with officers of the major Kurdish political parties.
"When you walk into all the important offices of state here in Kirkuk," Ali Falah says, "all the important signs in all the important offices are written in Kurdish because they want to isolate Kirkuk from the center."
Like other Arabs, Ali Fatah says he will never leave the city of his birth, but Kurdish politicians are unsympathetic.
"The principle is important," Iraqi Kurdistan Prime Minister Necevin Barzani told the Financial Times recently. "Whether or not the children were born there is a different issue. These people have occupied property that belonged to other people and unrightfully settled. They should go back."
Behind the bellicose rhetoric, however, there are at least some signs of a peaceful solution ahead.
Sheikh Nife al-Jabouri has represented one of the largest Sunni tribes in Northern Iraq on Kirkuk’s local council since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein 22 months ago. His father and brother were killed by the regime after they attempted an officers’ revolt against the government. After that, the sheikh says, the rest of his family was rounded up and put in prison.
This election year Sheikh Nife al-Jabouri ran for Kirkuk’s local council on a brotherhood slate that included both major Kurdish political parties. He has been in regular negotiations with Kurdish leaders on the future of Kirkuk, and he says he is getting ready for another round beginning Sunday in Arbil.
He is confident the repatriation will go smoothly. "The Kurds will not try to move people out in a hard way," he says. "That may be the way people talk on the street, but that’s not the speech of their leaders at the negotiations. The Iraqi government will offer people money to move and jobs in the south of Iraq and then offer their houses here in Kirkuk to Kurdish refugees."
And what about the Arabs who do not want to move to the south?
"We should remember that in some countries you can become a citizen after living there for just four or five years," he said. "Every person has a right to live where he wants. We all want to live in peace and safety and brotherhood."
(Inter Press Service)