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Concerns Arise Over Displaced Persons in Northern Iraq - 2003-05-09

In the immediate aftermath of the war in Iraq, thousands of displaced people returned to the northern part of the country to reclaim their houses and farms in and around the city of Kirkuk. Regional experts gathered at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York recently to discuss ways to arbitrate the conflicts over property between returning Iraqi Kurds and Arabs.

Qubad Talabany is the Deputy U.S. Representative of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or the PUK. His party and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, represent the two main Kurdish factions. Each will play a significant role in an Iraqi interim government.

Mr. Talabany says that the repossessions, while not officially sanctioned by the PUK, are unavoidable. "There is this issue of ethnic cleansing in Kirkuk, where successive Iraqi regimes not just Saddam Hussein's, have been forcibly evicting Kurds, Turkomans and Assyrians from their homes and replacing them with Arab settlers from the south and center of the country," he says. "We have 400,000 DPs, internally displaced persons, in the north as a result of this campaign. So, of course, some of these people are going to want to reclaim their homes. Can we stand in front of these people and tell them, 'No, you cannot reclaim your own homes?'"

Mr. Talabany believes that the reclaiming process has been relatively orderly, considering the "bad blood" involved. Many of the Arabs, he says, actually departed in anticipation of such an event.

But, he says, without a process to officially return displaced people to their homes, the situation will deteriorate. "We need a process. I need a piece of paper that I can take to the IDP's camps, and tell the thousands of people living in squalor, "Please don't take your homes back. Look, there is a process in motion. In six months or a year, you will be able to return to your home or be given another." Without that it is difficult politically, and impossible logistically, to keep people from taking back their homes," he says.

The legacy of ethnic cleansing is but one sore spot in intra-Iraqi relations. In the mid 90s, the PUK and the KDP fought a war, in large part over oil revenues.

Robert Baer, a long-time CIA field officer in the Middle East, says without an enduring U.S. presence, that war will pick up where it left off in 1997. "It's going to depend on the United States, of course. On what sort of institutions we leave behind. If we leave Iraq today, or six months from now, it's going to end up in a civil war," he says.

But Qubad Talabany is more optimistic about the situation. He says that since 1997 the KDP and PUK have resolved several disputes over water, over electricity, even over oil, peacefully. "We have shown signs of great cooperation. Politically, militarily, even economically. We both understand that if we have conflicts in the north again, it would ultimately mean the end of what we have in the north today. What we have is too big a prize," he says. "The livelihood of those four or five-million people is worth more than oil revenues."

The two Kurdish parties are not the only factions vying for power in the Iraq of tomorrow. There is the U.S.-backed Iraqi National Congress, and the Iraqi National Accord movement. But a source of great concern among regional experts are the powerful, Shi'ite factions in the south of Iraq, particularly the "Supreme Assembly for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq".

Mr. Talabany says that the Shiites, though factionalized, are preparing themselves to make a play for power. "The longer there is lawlessness in Iraq, the more likely it is that the Shi'ite Islamic clergy will move in to fill this vacuum. They are the most organized of the groups within Iraq," he says. "Yes, we are organized in the north, we have our institutions. But the Islamic roots they have there -- they are in the mosques, in the hospitals, in the schools. By receiving money from external sources, they are buying people. They are buying certain services and providing certain services. They're trying to appear as a functioning authority, and that's why it's important that we put together an interim Iraqi authority."

Mr. Talabany is calling for an interim authority in which only certain powers, foreign policy, national defense, economic policy, will be centralized. Otherwise, he envisions a federation of states to be governed locally, and marked by geography, not ethnicity. "You can't define an ethnic federation," he says, "with one-million Kurds living in Baghdad."