As U.S. and coalition forces prepare an assault on the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, U.S. forces have a responsibility to prevent the eruption of inter-ethnic violence, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch said widespread reprisal killings, retaliatory forced displacement, and other acts of violence against resettled families are possible once tens of thousands of forcibly displaced people return to reclaim their homes. Oil-rich Kirkuk, currently under Iraqi government control, has been the target of U.S. aerial bombing for the last several days. U.S. paratroopers have landed in Iraqi Kurdistan and it is likely that U.S. and coalition ground forces will enter the city in the near future.

"Kirkuk is a disaster waiting to happen," said Hania Mufti, a Human Rights Watch researcher based in Arbil. "If a plan for the gradual and orderly return of these displaced civilians is not drawn up soon and implemented before the ground offensive begins, there is a real possibility that the city will erupt into inter-ethnic violence."

Since the 1991 Gulf War, the Iraqi government has systematically expelled an estimated 120,000 Kurds, Turkomans, and Assyrians from Kirkuk and other towns and villages in this oil-rich region. Most have settled in the Kurdish-controlled northern provinces. Meanwhile, the Iraqi government has resettled Arab families in their place in an attempt to reduce the political power and presence of ethnic minorities, a process known as "Arabization."

Those who were displaced were forced to abandon their homes, were stripped of most of their possessions, and were deprived of any means of livelihood. Scores of expelled Kurds and Turkomans interviewed by Human Rights Watch during a September 2002 mission to Iraqi Kurdistan described the relentless pressure by the state to drive them from their homes by making their daily lives intolerable.

Human Rights Watch researchers now based in Iraqi Kurdistan said the United States has not prepared for returning displaced residents of Kirkuk.

"We have found no evidence that U.S. political and military leaders have prepared for the consequences of a massive influx of returnees with grievances against those who forced them from their homes, as well as those who now live in their homes," said Mufti.

During talks in Ankara in March 2003, U.S., Turkish and Iraqi opposition officials discussed the idea of creating a coalition commission to oversee issues relating to the northern front, including the orderly return of internally displaced people to Kirkuk. To date, however, no such commission has been established. Kurdish officials told Human Rights Watch that they were uncertain as to the role of their armed forces during any eventual ground offensive on Kirkuk. Both Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader Mas'ud Barzani and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leader Jalal Talabani have agreed to commit their Pesh Merga forces only with U.S. approval and under its command. Until now, the United States has not asked for such participation, but that position could change in the light of Turkey's refusal to grant access to U.S. forces through its territory.

"It is paramount that the United States immediately address the consequences of a future assault on Kirkuk," said Mufti.

Human Rights Watch urged the United States to make concrete plans for the gradual and orderly return of forcibly displaced residents, for the control of mass population flows, for the removal of land mines and unexploded ordinance, and for the implementation of security measures to deal with any outbreaks of violence.

In recent days, Human Rights Watch researchers have met with representatives of the Iraqi opposition, including the PUK, KDP, the Iraqi Turkoman Front, and the Iraqi National Congress, to discuss what preparations have been made to regulate the return of displaced families to Kirkuk. Kurdish officials have expressed serious concern about the potential for inter-ethnic violence in the city, but said there was very little they could do to stop a large-scale return since displaced families had every right to reclaim their homes as soon as possible. Some also said that "a significant number" of Arab families settled in Kirkuk had already left and that they hoped their departure would mitigate any violence. However, more recent information indicates that the Iraqi government has forcibly returned some of these Arab families to Kirkuk and to a number of villages in the province that were also included in the "Arabization" process.

Human Rights Watch called on all parties to the conflict in Iraq to respect the safety and freedom of movement rights of all Iraqi citizens, including their right to choose a place of residence, and to move to a place of safety either inside or outside Iraq.

Under international humanitarian law, the U.S.-led forces have a duty to restore and ensure public order and safety in territories under their authority from the moment they establish effective control over them. In order to do so, they need to devote enough personnel to ensure public safety, grant protection to all noncombatants, and prevent the occurrence of acts of reprisal or revenge.

Human Rights Watch called upon the U.S. government and its coalition partners to undertake, as a matter of urgency, the following measures to prevent the possibility of inter-ethnic violence in Kirkuk:

  • Call publicly for a gradual and orderly return of internally displaced persons to Kirkuk and other affected areas.
  • Establish a commission of coalition partners to address matters relating to the return of the former residents of Kirkuk, including the control of population flows, the clearance of land mines and unexploded ordinance, and the prevention of inter-ethnic strife.
  • Make every effort to secure government buildings in Kirkuk that could contain Iraqi government documents pertaining to the "Arabization" policy, including property deeds and nationality registration records. Such documentation will be essential for a speedy and fair resolution of all claims on homes and property, for family tracing and reunification efforts and for future accountability for crimes committed by Iraqi officials.

Human Rights Watch also called upon the Kurdish authorities to go beyond making general appeals to returning families that no reprisals be carried out against Arab families settled by the Iraqi government in Kirkuk. The Kurdish authorities should:

  • Develop a plan, to be made public as soon as possible, for the gradual and orderly return of displaced families to Kirkuk. For example, organizing the return of groups of displaced civilians according to the districts from which they were expelled.
  • Continue to compile records establishing the ethnicity and place of origin of displaced civilians, including duplicates of nationality correction forms, confiscated expulsion orders, and ration cards.
  • Provide a public and accessible family tracing and reunification registry and service. Finally, Human Rights Watch called on the United Nations to return to northern Iraq to assist in this and other humanitarian efforts. The United Nations should:
  • Draw up a plan for the speedy dispatch of human rights monitors to Iraq, including Kirkuk, once hostilities have ceased.
  • Provide technical and financial assistance to the Kurdish authorities to create a central registry of displaced persons based on ethnicity, place of origin, and property claims, as well as a public family tracing and reunification registry and service.
  • Establish a mechanism for the adjudication of disputes in Kirkuk and other affected areas with respect to property claims and other assets.