The Iraqi Kurdistan government is warning of mounting ethnic tensions in the country's disputed territories, saying that Kurdish families are being forcibly evicted from their homes by Arab settlers in a manner that "threatens peace and stability."
Some security experts also say the renewed ethnic tensions over long-standing property ownership rights in Kirkuk could create a fertile ground for the Islamic State terror group to mount attacks, given that it maintains active sleeper cells in the multiethnic and oil-rich province.
Masrour Barzani, prime minister of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), in a statement Tuesday compared recent reported attempts to evict Kurdish villagers to former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's ethnic-cleansing policy, known as "Arabization."
"We are watching with grave concern the situation in the disputed territories in Kirkuk province in particular, where Arabization policies and attempts to change their demography continue systematically to date," he said.
VOA's requests for reaction from Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi's office on Barzani's comments went unanswered.
What is Arabization?
Following the first Gulf War in 1991, Hussein's regime expelled tens of thousands of Kurds and other minorities, such as Turkomans and Assyrians, from Kirkuk province while providing Arabs from southern Iraq with financial incentives and free farmland to settle in the northern province. Rights groups called the process ethnic cleansing.
When the U.S.-led invasion started in 2003, many Arab settlers, fearing for their lives, evacuated their homes before they were retaken by Kurds and others, who had been expelled by Hussein's regime in the first place. They said they were merely taking back what had been "stolen" from them.
Left without protection of the Kurdish peshmerga, KRG says a reverse wave is now taking place in Kirkuk as former Arab settlers reportedly are showing up to demand farmlands from Kurds. The Iraqi government forced the peshmerga to withdraw from Kirkuk following the 2017 Kurdish independence referendum.
Though the tensions have not turned bloody yet, locals say the risks remain high as Kurdish farmers generally are armed. Some Kurds, who have refused to leave, say their wheat fields have been set ablaze during the night by unknown people.
"We stress that the Kurdistan Regional Government will never accept Arabization policies, bringing nonindigenous people to settle in these places in particular," Barzani said in the statement.
"Imposing these policies will threaten peace and stability in these areas," he added.
In an apparent move to assuage Kurdish concerns, Iraq's Ministry of Justice issued a decree Wednesday, declaring null and void all the agricultural contracts that had been signed during Hussein's era to "demographically change the disputed territories."
While the Kurds welcome the decision, they say enforcing it on the ground is far more important. Some analysts say they doubt a political decision can bring the long-standing conflict to a swift end in a country where irregular militia groups often call the shots.
Iran-backed militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), are a key element of the disputed territory's security forces.
"The current prime minister has no power to prevent all the militias who are holding arms against different ethnic groups," said Nahro Zagros, an Irbil-based university professor and a nonresident fellow with the Gold Institute in Washington.
A senior KRG official told VOA on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue that the renewed ethnic tensions in Kirkuk do not mean KRG-Baghdad talks are breaking down over other issues such as budget and joint military efforts against IS.
"We have not made any breakthrough," said the official. "No agreement on paper yet, but the talks are ongoing." He added that the Arab-Kurd tensions, though, could "create opportunities for [IS] to attack as it wishes."
Kadhimi's rare visit
Earlier this month, Kadhimi visited the Kurdistan Region, becoming Iraq's first sitting prime minister to visit the site of the 1988 chemical gas attack in the Kurdish city of Halabja. He also met with survivors of Hussein's Anfal genocide against Kurds.
"You have sacrificed a lot," said Kadhimi, addressing a woman who survived the genocide but lost many loved ones.
"We need to learn how to prevent this from ever happening again. The most important thing is that we don't repeat the same mistakes," he added.
Kadhimi's visit to the region, where he also met with protest leaders on the street, was widely praised in Kurdish social media, even as some viewed it as nothing more than propaganda for early elections expected to be held next year.
"Kurdish grievances in Kirkuk persist," said Bilal Wahab, an Iraq scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "However, some posturing is in order as the two sides negotiate the 2021 budget and soon enter the electioneering phase."
Washington has encouraged Baghdad to reach an agreement with the KRG. In August, ahead of Kadhimi's visit to the U.S., a senior Trump administration official told reporters that solving KRG-Baghdad disputes was at the top of the agenda.
"Our most acute conversation point in this visit is to make sure that the resources available to the Baghdad central government also find their way to the KRG," said the U.S. official.