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Kirkuk Emerges as Faultline for Civil Conflict in Iraq


As Iraqi officials prepare to draft the country's new constitution, fierce debate is expected over the status of Kirkuk, the center of northern Iraq's oil industry. Formerly known for its ethnic harmony, Saddam Hussein's policy of forced population shifts, called Arabization, has torn the fabric of the province. Now the Kurds want it back.

Ismael Yassin and his wife, Amira Mohammed, are building a simple, one-story house made of cinder blocks. About a year ago, the Kurdish couple and their eight children returned to their village of Turkolan, outside the city of Kirkuk.

Like thousands of other Kurds, they were driven from their homes in 1987 in a sweep by the former Saddam Hussein regime. It was part of Saddam's policy of "Arabization," designed, in part, to move Kurds out of strategic areas like Kirkuk, and to shift the ethnic balance by bringing Arabs into the city, the northern headquarters of Iraq's oil industry.

Mr. Yassin says his family returned, because Turkolan is their home. They wanted to come back as soon as Saddam Hussein was gone.

The group, Human Rights Watch, estimates that more than a quarter-million Kurds and non-Arabs were forcefully expelled from their homes in Kirkuk.

Since 2003, tens-of-thousands of Arab settlers have left the region, but tens-of-thousands of others have chosen to stay in towns and villages they now think of as home.

Meanwhile, local officials estimate more than 100,000 Kurds have returned. Many of them are living in miserable conditions, in camps for the internally displaced, and in villages with little running water or power.

But that has not affected Amira Mohammed's satisfaction at having returned home.

Ms. Mohammed says she feels free in Turkolan, and does not think anyone would use force to move them out again.

But the combustible mix of ethnic resentment, poor living conditions and fear for the future in Kirkuk has led to violence.

Rights groups report that there have been attacks on leaders from all three predominant ethnic groups. They also report tit-for-tat killings across ethnic lines in communities across the province. Kirkuk has also suffered from insurgent attacks on oil and gas pipelines, plus car-bombings and other terrorist activity.

Officials say the violence has not flared out of control. But the situation is complicated by politics.

Kurds represent the second-largest voting block in the national assembly. Analysts expect fierce debate by lawmakers over whether to redraw the internal borders in Iraq to return Kirkuk to Kurdish control. A referendum may ultimately be held to determine Kirkuk's status.

Adnan Mufti, a senior member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, says the debate is not about the oil.

"Historically, Kirkuk is part of Kurdistan, and the majority are Kurd - and they suffered too much," Mr. Mufti says. "Thousands-and-thousands of them have suffered and been killed during the dictatorship. So, it is very normal that we are looking for the right of Kirkuk people, and the right to return back to Kurdistan area. But the oil, it is no problem. Kurdistan is rich. All Iraq is rich. Oil is everywhere."

Even within the Kurdish region, internal politics have made settling the Kirkuk issue more difficult.

During the 1990s, the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan were locked in a political rivalry that gave way to civil war. A peace deal was struck in 1998. But it was only within the past few days that the two sides hammered out the details to integrate the rival administrations that governed the region.

Mahmoud Othman is formerly with the Kurdish Democratic Party, and says, against the backdrop of national and local politics, ethnic tensions could be exacerbated. He calls Kirkuk a potential troublespot.

"One reason is, different nationalities, the Turkomans, the Arabs, the Kurds, the Assyrians, the Kurdians - this, by itself - it is not so easy to connect everybody together … So I think problems are ahead. We have to try to face them and solve these problems through dialogue … through trying to return the people who were ousted from the areas, finding a solution for the Arabs who were installed in their places," Mr.Othman says.

Ismael Yassin and his wife are lucky. They are affiliated with a political party, which gave them about $1,000 and cement to help them build their new home.

About a kilometer away, Samer Aziz is not as fortunate. A Kurd married to an Arab man, she and her family are squatting in a former military barracks that used to house guards for Kirkuk's oil refinery.

Ms. Aziz would rather not live here, in the former kitchen of the barracks, with her husband and five children. But when Saddam Hussein forced people out of the area, she and her family moved to the predominantly Arab city of Hawija.

After the regime collapsed, Ms. Aziz was told her children, of mixed Arab and Kurdish blood, were no longer welcome in school. Now, back in a predominantly Kurdish area, things have gotten no better.

She says, "We came back again five months ago, and asked for some land. But the Kirkuk city authorities would not give us any, because we had lived in Hawija on Arab land. They asked why we had not moved to a Kurdish city like Irbil." But she says, the family did not know what to do at the time. Some families went to Hawija, some to Irbil and some to Baghdad.

Kurdish officials say, once the two administrations are fully integrated, they hope to provide up to $4,000 to families, regardless of their ethnicity, who can prove former residency in towns and villages across the Kurdish region.

Asos Hardi is the editor of the Kurdish weekly newspaper, Hawlati, based in the city of Suleimaniyah. He says, despite all the difficulties, Kurdish leaders are on top of the situation in Kirkuk.

"It is true, it's a very sensitive area, and from time to time, there is tension between different parties there," Mr. Hardi says. "But I believe - and maybe I hope - that we would not see a real explosion. Of course, it's possible to have, but I think that the leaders of everyone, every party, or the players in the area, are aware that the explosion will not be in the benefit of anyone, especially the Kurds."

But it may be some time before ordinary Kurds are ready to let by-gones be by-gones.

At work on his house in the village of Turkolan, Ismael Yassin admits he has little concern for Arabs and their demands to stay in Kirkuk.

"I do not feel any sympathy for them," he says, "because they took all our property and farmland, without any sympathy for us," Mr. Yassin says.

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