Advancing to Reclaim Land in Northern Iraq
Iraq, June 17, by Dexter Filkins — Thousands of ethnic
Kurds are pushing into lands
formerly held by Iraqi Arabs, forcing tens of thousands of them to flee
to ramshackle refugee camps and transforming the demographic and
political map of northern Iraq.
The Kurds are returning to lands from which they were expelled by the
armies of Saddam Hussein and his predecessors in the Baath Party, who
ordered thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed and sent waves of Iraqi
Arabs north to fill the area with supporters.
The new movement, which began with the fall of Mr. Hussein, appears to
have quickened this spring amid confusion about American policy, along
with political pressure by Kurdish leaders to resettle the areas
formerly held by Arabs. It is happening at a moment when Kurds are
threatening to withdraw from the national government if they are not
confident of having sufficient autonomy.
In Baghdad, American officials say they are struggling to keep the
displaced Kurds on the north side of the Green Line, the boundary of
the Kurdish autonomous region. The Americans agree that the Kurds
deserve to return to their ancestral lands, but they want an orderly
migration to avoid ethnic strife and political instability.
But thousands of Kurds appear to be ignoring the American orders. New
Kurdish families show up every day at the camps that mark the landscape
here, settling into tents and tumble-down homes as they wait to reclaim
their former lands.
The Kurdish migration appears to be causing widespread misery, with
Arabs complaining of expulsions and even murders at the hands of
Kurdish returnees. Many of the Kurdish refugees themselves are gathered
in crowded camps.
American officials say as many as 100,000 Arabs have fled their homes
in north-central Iraq and are now scattered in squalid camps across the
center of the country. With the anti-American insurgency raging across
much of the same area, the Arab refugees appear to be receiving neither
food nor shelter from the Iraqi government, relief organizations or
"The Kurds, they laughed at us, they threw tomatoes at us," said Karim
Qadam, a 45-year-old father of three, now living amid the rubble of a
blown-up building in Baquba, northeast of Baghdad. "They told us to get
out of our homes. They told us they would kill us. They told us, `You
don't own anything here anymore.' "
Ten years ago, Mr. Qadam said, Iraqi officials forced him to turn over
his home in the southern city of Diwaniya and move north to the
formerly Kurdish village of Khanaqaan, where he received a free parcel
of farmland. Now, like the thousands of Arabs encamped in the parched
plains northeast of Baghdad, Mr. Qadam, his wife and three children
have no home to return to.
The push by the Kurds into the formerly Arab-held lands, while driven
by the returnees themselves, appears to be backed by the Kurdish
government, which has long advocated a resettlement of the disputed
area. Despite an explicit prohibition in the Iraqi interim
constitution, Kurdish officials are setting up offices and exercising
governmental authority in the newly settled areas.
The shift in population is raising fears in Iraq that the Kurds are
trying to expand their control over Iraqi territory at the same time
they are suggesting that they may pull out of the Iraqi government.
American officials say they are trying to fend off pressure from Kurds
to move their people back into the area. "There is a lot of pressure in
the Kurdish political context to bring the people who were forced out
back into their hometowns," said a senior American official in Baghdad,
speaking on the condition of anonymity. "What we have tried to do so
far, through moral suasion, is to get the Kurds to recognize that if
they put too much pressure on Kirkuk and other places south of the
Green Line, they could spark regional and national instability."
But local occupation officials appear in some areas to have accepted
the flow of Kurds back to their homes. According to minutes of a recent
meeting of occupation officials and relief workers in the northern city
of Erbil, an American official said the Americans would no longer
oppose Kurds' crossing the Green Line, as long as the areas they were
moving into were uncontested.
And Kurdish and American officials say the occupation authority has
been financing projects here in Makhmur, a formerly Arab area recently
resettled by Kurds.
The biggest potential flash point is Kirkuk, a city contested by Arabs,
Kurds and Turkmen. Kurdish leaders want to make the city, with its vast
oil deposits, the Kurdish regional capital and resettle it with Kurds
who were driven out in the 1980's.
To make the point, some 10,000 Kurds have gathered in a sprawling camp
outside Kirkuk, where they are pressing the American authorities to let
them enter the city. American military officers who control Kirkuk say
they are blocking attempts to expel more Arabs from the town, for fear
of igniting ethnic unrest.
"The Kurds are pushing, pushing," said Pascal Ishu Warda, the minister
for displaced persons and migration. "We have to set up a system to
deal with these people who have been thrown out of their homes."
To treat the burgeoning crisis, American officials last month approved
spending $180 million to compensate Arab families thrown out of their
homes; earlier they set up a similar program, with similar financing,
for the Kurds.
The Americans have distributed handbills in Arab and Kurdish camps
calling on Iraqis to file claims and produce ownership documents.
But some Iraqi and American officials say those claims could take
months or even years to sort out, and will provide little immediate
help to the families, Arab and Kurdish, languishing in the camps.
Some people said American officials waited too long — more than a year
— to set up a mechanism to resettle displaced Iraqis. By then, they
said, the Kurds, tired of waiting, took matters into their own hands.
Peter W. Galbraith, a former United States ambassador, who has advised
the Kurdish leadership, said he recommended a claim system for Kurds
and Arabs to Pentagon officials in late 2002. Nothing was put in place
on the ground until last month, he said, long after the Kurds began to
move south of the Green Line.
"The C.P.A. adopted a sensible idea, but it required rapid
implementation," Mr. Galbraith said. "They dropped the ball, and facts
were created on the ground. Of course people are going to start moving.
If the political parties are encouraging this, that, too, is
Kurdish leaders say they are merely taking back land that was stolen
from them over four decades. Publicly, the Kurdish leaders say that
they are committed to working within the Iraqi state as long as their
federal rights are assured, and that no Arabs have been forced from
But in the villages and camps where the Kurds have returned, Kurdish
leaders are more boastful. They say they pushed the Arab settlers out
as part of a plan to expand Kurdish control over the territory.
"We made sure there wasn't a single Arab left here who came as part of
the Arabization program," said Abdul Rehman Belaf, the mayor of
Makhmur, a large area in northern Iraq that was emptied of Arabs and is
now being resettled by Kurds.
Mr. Belaf is a member of the Kurdish Democratic Party, one of the two
main Kurdish political parties active on the other side of the Green
Line; virtually all of Makhmur's officials belong to the party, too.
"We haven't stopped yet," he said. "We have more land to take back."
Before the war began in 2003, Arab settlers worked the fields in the
areas surrounding Makhmur. Most of the settlers were brought north by
successive waves of Mr. Hussein's campaign to populate the north with
Arabs, killing or expelling tens of thousands of Kurds.
Exactly what happened when Mr. Hussein's army collapsed is disputed.
Kurdish officials say the Arab settlers fled with the army. No
expulsions were necessary, they said.
But some Arab families, like those who settled around Makhmur long ago,
have largely been left alone.
"Saddam's people asked me to take Kurdish lands in 1987, and I said
no," said Salim Sadoon al-Sabawi, a 60-year-old Arab farmer in the
village where his family has lived for generations. "When the Kurds
returned, they left me alone. There was no violence. We are like
Asked what the Kurds did to the Arabs who migrated into the area
recently, Mr. Sabawi paused, and his son, Arkan, broke in. "They
threatened people with death," Arkan said. "They told them to get out."
"Let's be honest," Mr. Sabawi told his son. "The Arabs who left all
came here as part of the Arabization program. They kicked out the
Kurds. It wasn't their land to begin with."
Mr. Belaf, the Kurdish mayor, said that before the war, the area around
Makhmur was 80 percent Arab. A year later, he said, it is 80 percent
Kurdish, as it used to be.
As hard as life is for Arabs in refugee camps, it seems to be hardly
better for the Kurds displacing them.
Adnan Karim, 34, said his home was burned by the Iraqi Army in 1987. He
began a life on the run after that, fighting Mr. Hussein as a pesh
merga, marrying, having children and moving from one place to another.
Last year he returned to an old military camp near Kirkuk, Qara Hanjir,
hoping the new government would set aside some land for returnees like
him. Nearly a year later, he is still waiting in a camp.
Mr. Karim said he was trying to provide for his wife and three children
with a $40-a-month pesh merga pension and money from odd jobs. But much
of his money is spent buying water from a truck.
Watching his children play in the dirt around him, Mr. Karim, a
bedraggled man, gave in to despair.
"I have spent my whole life this way," he said, "just as you see
me." Siunday New York
Times, 20 June