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Tensions in Kirkuk Could Lead to Fighting - or if Resolved, Peace - Throughout 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. It was known for its ethnic harmony, but Saddam Hussein's policy of forced population shifts, called Arabization, tore the fabric of the province, which he annexed from the Kurds. Now the Kurds want it back. VOA's Patricia Nunan reports from the region.

Hamid Hwakram, at work building his new home. About a year ago, Hwakram, his wife and eight children returned here to the village of Topzawa, outside the city of Kirkuk.

Like thousands of other Kurds, they were driven from their homes in 1987 in a sweep by Saddam Hussein's forces. It was part of Saddam's policy of "Arabization," designed to shift the ethnic balance in Kurdish strongholds by bringing Arabs in. More than a quarter million Kurds were forced from their homes across the region.

The reason why lies just beyond the village: Kirkuk's oil refinery, the headquarters for the oil industry in northern Iraq that Saddam Hussein didn't want in Kurdish hands. To ensure that, Saddam redrew Iraq's internal boundaries, to remove Kirkuk from the Kurdish region and link it with the Arab south.

Hwakram and his family are among tens of thousands of Kurds to return to the region since Saddam Hussein was removed from power two years ago. And many have returned to tense relations with their Arab neighbors.

Says Hwakram, "I hope to God no one can come kick us out from our land again."

Others have less to return home to -- often living in places such as a soccer stadium turned into a refugee camp. Officials admit they have limited resources to help the returning population -- and anger is rising.

"There's no electricity, there's no water, there's no one in charge visiting us to ask what we need,” says one man. “There are no services. I was forced out in 1988 and since I've come back, no one does anything to help me. For my children and me, this is not a life. I've got just 100 dinars left. This is just not a life."

Officials admit those conditions have fueled a potentially explosive situation between Kirkuk's Kurds and Arabs. But politician Mahmoud Othman says it is possible to normalize relations between the two groups.

"We have the remnants of 35 years of very concentrating ethnic policy, and that has created a lot of problems. Saddam Hussein did all those to create problems between. So I think we need some time, we need some wisdom, we need some concessions."

The Kurdish region is ethnically, culturally and geographic distinct from southern Iraq. To many, it is the faultline upon which national unity in post-Saddam Iraq lies -- ethnic fighting here could ignite the rest of the country. Kirkuk and its oil fields are the faultline's weakest points.

By the time Saddam Hussein's government collapsed in 2003, Kurds had already enjoyed 12 years of self-rule thanks to a no-fly zone over the region imposed by the U.S. after the 1991 Gulf War.

And the Kurds have gotten used to it. Many want independence, and see the decision to remain with Iraq as a political compromise. But in return, Kurds want to retain a high degree of autonomy through a federalist constitution. And they want Kirkuk back.

Adnan Mufti, the speaker of the Kurdish regional parliament insists, it’s not about the oil. "Historically, Kirkuk is part of Kurdistan, and the majority are Kurd, and they suffered too much. 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."

In Topzawa, Hamid Hwakram has got a long memory for the crimes committed against Kurds, and little sympathy for the concerns of his Arab neighbors in Kirkuk. “Why should I feel sorry for them when, 20 years ago, we were the ones forced from our villages?”

Kirkuk’s and possibly Iraq's future future may hinge on getting past that anger.