(Washington) - Iraq´s practice of expelling Kurds, Turkomans, and Assyrians in the oil-rich regions of Kirkuk and turning their property over to Arab families from the south continues, Human Rights Watch said today.

In a new report documenting this ongoing practice, Human Rights Watch said there is an urgent need for Iraq, or in the event of war the occupying powers, to establish a mechanism that will permit the orderly return of more than 120,000 persons forced out of their homes since 1991. Human Rights Watch said this was essential to head off ethnic violence should displaced families attempt to return to the area.  
 
"Iraq has used systematic intimidation, harassment, and discrimination to make the lives of Kirkuk´s minorities intolerable," said Joe Stork, Washington director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "The government´s clear intent is to ‘Arabize´ this key oil-producing region by force and repression."  
 
The report, based on interviews conducted in September 2002 with recently displaced families, details policies that include: · forcing minorities to "correct" their ethnic identity, · compelling them to join supposedly "volunteer" paramilitary forces such as the Popular Army and Saddam´s Martyrs, and · seizing the land of farming families without prior notice or compensation.  
 
"Some of the more valuable properties were presented as ‘gifts´ to high Ba`th Party officials," Stork said, " while most was distributed to Arab families enticed to move into the area."  
 
Human Rights Watch said that the systematic forced and arbitrary transfer of populations is a crime against humanity under international law, and urged that those responsible be brought to justice.  
 
"Iraq operates a bureaucracy of expulsion, complete with formal expulsion orders and deportation centers," Stork said. "This report documents a crime against humanity that the government continues today."