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Iraq Turns Up Heat on Ethnic Kurds, Non-Arabs in Kirkuk - 2002-07-04

Iraq's government has recently stepped up its campaign to evict ethnic Kurds and other non-Arabs from Iraq's main oil-producing province, Kirkuk.

For Jiyan Ahmad and her four children, home is a tiny mud hut with no running water or windows. She and her family have been living here for the past month-and-a-half on meager rations of flour, rice, and sugar provided by the local government.

Jiyan is like hundreds of other refugees at this rundown camp on the outskirts of the Kurdish-controlled city of Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq. She said she and her family were forced at gunpoint by Iraqi security forces to leave their home in Iraq's main oil-producing province, Kirkuk, and to move to Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.

Jiyan said she was expelled from Kirkuk after she and her husband Mahmoud repeatedly refused to sign papers presented to them by Iraqi officials that identified the couple as ethnic Arabs. Jiyan said her husband Mahmoud is in an Iraqi jail, and she has not heard from him since she arrived in northern Iraq.

Western diplomats said as many as 150 families are driven out of Kirkuk every month. Such expulsions have continued for decades.

Diplomats said the Iraqi policy apparently is to prevent the Kurds from claiming Kirkuk province for themselves. That is what they did during their failed rebellion against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Thousands of Kurds died after the U.S. led coalition failed to intervene against advancing Iraqi troops. An international outcry arose when televised images showed millions of Kurdish refugees camped in the mountains bordering Iran and Turkey.

And the United States and its allies were prompted to declare a "no fly" zone in northern Iraq that is enforced by U.S. and British planes.

Barham Salih is an official of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, one of the two main Kurdish factions that have administered the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq for the past 11 years.

Like most Iraqi Kurdish leaders, Mr. Salih insists that Kirkuk should be incorporated into the federal government the Iraqi Kurds said they want established in exchange for their participation in any U.S. led operation to overthrow President Saddam Hussein.

"The Iraqi government continues with its policy of ethnic cleansing, evicting Kurds and Turcomens, dispossessing them of their belongings, properties and replacing them with Arabs. This is what the government of Iraq calls part of the Arabization campaign, which is a truly repressive ethnic cleansing policy aimed at changing the demographic characteristics of these areas of Iraqi Kurdistan," Mr. Salih said.

Mr. Salih said the influx of refugees from Kirkuk is putting huge economic pressure on his administration.

For example, he cites conditions at this refugee camp. A single pipe provides all the drinking and washing water for about 500 families. Snakes and scorpions are a constant threat to children. So are hepatitis and exposure during the icy cold Kurdish winter.

However, some refugees say that despite the hardship, they are happy to be living in Iraqi Kurdistan, where they said they enjoy a degree of freedom that would be unthinkable in areas controlled by Iraq's government.

Hassan Karim Fattah, an ethnic Turcomen, from Kirkuk is one of them. "After graduation, we are obliged if we are in the central government of Iraq under the authority of the central government, we are obliged to do the soldier serve in the military maybe one year or two years, so we lose our lives or lose our youth with being a soldier. I think it's a bad thing. Here, no one comes and pulls you from your hand and ask you to defend your country. There is no war that's a good thing for us," Mr. Hassan said.

The PUK's Barham Salih expresses frustration at what he calls the failure of the international community to deter the Iraqi government from its current policies.

"We continue to call for international action against the government of Iraq to end this policy of ethnic cleansing and to allow the refugees to go back to their homes. This must not be tolerated. Ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Kirkuk are the same, and the world community, the civilized community of nations, must act to stop it," Mr. Salih said.

Like many Kurdish leaders, Mr. Salih said that ultimately, the most effective way to bring an end to ethnic cleansing and other rights abuses in Iraq is to topple President Saddam Hussein.