WASHINGTON – Amid all the violence and crime that have stricken much of central and southern Iraq in recent months, the northern region of Kurdistan has remained relatively quiet.
But beneath that calm, according to a new report released Tuesday by Human Rights Watch (HRW), lies simmering tensions over conflicting land claims between Kurds, Turkmens, and Arabs living in the region that could burst into armed conflict at any time due to the failure thus far for the authorities – either the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) or the new government headed by Interim President Iyad Allawi – to begin resolving those disputes.
Patience on all sides is running out, according to the 78-page report, “Claims in Conflict: Reversing Ethnic Cleansing in Northern Iraq,” as tens of thousands of Kurds, as well as Turkmens and Assyrians, who were forced out of their homes during the three decades that preceded last year’s U.S.-led invasion, remain camped out, often in dire conditions, waiting to reclaim the homes they lost in the Ba’athist regime’s “Arabization” program.
At the same time, thousands of Arabs who were forced to leave their homes as Kurdish militias, or peshmerga, advanced into southern Kurdistan and into the oil center of Kirkuk, which Iraqi Kurds regard as their spiritual capital, during the first months of the U.S. occupation, are also living out in temporary camps, waiting for their fates to be resolved and with nowhere else to go.
“If these property disputes are not addressed as a matter of urgency, rising tensions between returning Kurds and Arab settlers could soon explode into open violence,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa division.
“Justice must be done for the victims of what was effectively an ethnic cleansing campaign to permanently alter the ethnic make-up of northern Iraq,” she said.
Iraq experts have warned that the failure to settle the claims, particularly in Kirkuk, could be one of the flashpoints for the kind of conflict that could tear the country apart.
Efforts by the central government in Baghdad to move Arabs, centered primarily in the middle and southern parts of the country, northwards into regions dominated by Kurds, Turkmens, and Assyrians. Beginning in the mid-1970s, however, “Arabization” on a massive scale began in earnest following the creation by the Ba’athist government of an autonomous zone in parts of Iraqi Kurdistan.
During that period, some 250,000 Kurds and other non-Arabs were expelled from a huge swath of northern Iraq, ranging from Khanaqin along the Iranian border to Sinjar on the Syrian-Turkish border. Land titles held by non-Arabs were invalidated, and landless Arabs and their families from the nearby al-Jazeera desert were brought in to occupy and lease what was declared government land.
In 1988, the Iraqi government launched the infamous Anfal campaign against the Kurds, killing some 100,000, destroying many of their villages, and leaving hundreds of thousands more Kurds homeless. Most were not allowed to return home, and their property rights were invalidated, while Arabs from the south were brought in to settle their lands.
Through the 1990s and until the eve of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Kurds and other non-Arabs in Kirkuk faced constant harassment and were sometimes forced to choose between being expelled or joining the Ba’ath Party, changing their ethnic identity to Arab, and joining paramilitary forces in support of the regime. Approximately 120,000 people were expelled from Kirkuk and other areas during this time, while Arabs were encouraged to settle in their place through financial incentives.
Overall, the United Nations counted a total of more than 800,000 displaced people, virtually all of whom had come from “Arabized” areas living in that part of northern Iraq that was protected by the U.S.- and British-enforced no-fly zone on the eve of the U.S.-led invasion which drastically altered the situation, according to HRW. A large number of Arab settlers and their families left their homes in advance of the arrival of Kurdish and U.S. forces, leaving entire Arabized villages empty. While many displaced Kurds hope to return to them, however, they have not yet done so, in large part because they are simply too poor to rebuild their homes and because the mechanism for determining claims to properties has not yet begun operating.
On the other hand, Kurds have tried to return to homes in Kirkuk and Mosul where Arabs, however, have been reluctant to leave, steadily adding to tensions – both between Kurds and Arabs and Kurds and Turkmens – in those two urban areas. In some cases, Kurds and peshmerga have tried to expel Arabs through threats and intimidation, provoking clashes inter-communal clashes in Kirkuk, in particular.
“Kurds are flocking back to Kirkuk, but the city has little capacity to absorb them,” said Whitson. “They are living in abandoned buildings and tent camps without running water or electricity supplies, and they face precarious security conditions.”
At the same time, little effort has gone into finding solutions for the “Arabization Arabs” who themselves have no place to go, particularly with the national economy in such difficult straits. Many of the Arabs who have left or been forced to leave their homes have lived in the region for as much as three decades but now find themselves living in makeshift shelters without basic services waiting for property claims to be resolved or for new programs for their resettlement.
The report notes that the U.S.-led CPA essentially failed to address any of these issues or to implement a strategy to resolve claims. Although legislation to establish an Iraq Property Claims Commission (IPCC) was passed last January, orders for its operation were only finalized just before the handover to the interim government. Worse, the legislation failed to provide mechanisms to help Arabs who had lost or will lose their claims to property in the north, leaving them in a particularly uncertain state.
“The process of seeking redress for the displaced Kurds and others must not lead to new injustices against Arab settlers,” said Whitson.
Similarly, the Kurdish leadership has failed to put into place a coordinated and unified policy for dealing with the ongoing and anticipated influx of displaced Kurds and other non-Arabs and their families into Kirkuk and other areas or to provide for their humanitarian needs.
HRW said that many of the Arab settlers interviewed for the report last year indicated that they recognized Kurdish claims to their properties and were willing to give up their homes in return for aid and help in finding new homes and livelihoods. But, with the passage of time, it appeared that all sides were becoming increasingly impatient with the lack of progress in both resettlement and the provision of aid, contributing to a steady rise in tensions throughout the region.