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VI. Reversing Arabization of Kirkuk

Arabization of Kirkuk

The city of Kirkuk, located some 168 miles (280 kms) north of Iraq’s capital Baghdad at the foot of the Zagros mountains, is one of the major centers of Iraq’s oil industry, with an estimated ten billion barrels of remaining proven oil reserves.  Since the failed uprisings of 1991, the Iraqi government forcibly expelled over 120,000 Kurds, Turkomans, and Assyrians from government-controlled areas of northern Iraq, most of them from Kirkuk and the surrounding villages.  Most of these expulsions took place through an escalated process of harassment by Iraqi government officials, documented in an earlier Human Rights Watch study:

Typically, families targeted for expulsion would receive several threatening visits from security personnel or Ba`th Party officials.  During those visits, the families are pressured to take one or more of the following steps: officially alter their ethnic identity by registering as Arabs instead of Kurds, Turkoman, or Assyrian, a process known as “nationality correction;” [sic] become members of the ruling Ba`th Party; and/or join one of the various militias formed by Saddam Hussein, including the so-called Army of Jerusalem (Jaysh al-Quds).  Families with young men are particularly harassed.

As a result of these pressures, some families decide to depart for the Kurdish-controlled areas, knowing that they risk forced expulsion, imprisonment, and other abuse if they continue to refuse to comply with official demands.  Those families who remain in Kirkuk are soon presented with a formal expulsion order.  Oftentimes, a male relative is arrested at this point and held hostage by the security services until the family has arranged for departure to the Kurdish-controlled areas.118

As in other Arabized areas, the Iraqi government replaced the expelled Kurdish, Turkoman, and Assyrian population of Kirkuk with Arabs, most of them Shi`a families brought from the south.  Arabs took over the homes of expelled Kurdish, Turkoman, and Assyrian families, but the Iraqi government also constructed entire new Arab neighborhoods such as al-Nasr, al-Hurriya, and al-Qadisiyya neighborhoods to drastically alter the ethnic demographics of Kirkuk—the very aim of Arabization.  The Arabs who came to Kirkuk tended to be more urbanized, middle-class professionals than the Arab farmers who settled rural Kurdish villages.  Naji Hassan Ashur al-Shummari, a Shi`a Arab resident of the al-Qadisiyya II neighborhood is a typical case of an Arab who came to Kirkuk through Arabization.  A sports teacher from al-Hilla, south of Baghdad, he came to Kirkuk in 1989 after the government offered him a free plot of land and 10,000 dinars (then approximately $30,000 U.S.) as an incentive: “There were many poor people in the south, without homes and living in poverty, and that is why we came here,” he explained to Human Rights Watch.119

Abuses Committed During the Fall of Kirkuk

Because of its oil resources and its strategic importance, the fight for control of Kirkuk proved to be one of the focal points of the conflict in northern Iraq.  The two main Kurdish parties, the KDP and the PUK, have long considered Kirkuk to be an integral part of a future Kurdish federal region.   Turkey has repeatedly expressed its concern about Kurdish aspirations over Kirkuk, stating that Kurdish control over Kirkuk could fuel Kurdish nationalism in the region and undermine the rights of Turkoman residents of Kirkuk.  Kirkuk itself has become almost synonymous with the abusive Arabization campaign, and thus Kurdish determination to reverse the process of Arabization in Kirkuk was particularly fierce.

The city of Kirkuk fell to Kurdish forces on April 10.  For almost a week Kirkuk was in the control of PUK forces, which entered the city in defiance of a prior agreement with U.S. forces that Peshmerga forces would remain outside the city.  The Peshmerga made significant efforts to reduce the widespread looting by civilians and others, arresting looters and confiscating their goods, but the task was overwhelming.  They did, however, succeed in protecting some of the non-Ba`th Party buildings, including the city’s hospitals.  U.S. pressure caused the PUK forces to withdraw from Kirkuk three days afterwards, and U.S. forces entered and consolidated control over the city.  The PUK then brought in civilian defense units, traffic police, and medical staff for the hospitals in order to fill the vacuum left behind when Iraq government forces and officials fled Kirkuk.  Several dozen persons were killed by unknown assailants in the first days after the fall of Kirkuk, including some former Ba`th officials who were executed and at least one person who was apparently hanged, with his hands tied.

During the same period, Arab residents in some neighborhoods of Kirkuk reported pressure from Kurdish armed gangs to leave their homes, although it was difficult to determine whether the armed gangs responsible for acts of intimidation were official Peshmerga forces belonging to the KDP or PUK, or armed elements outside the formal control of the political parties.  In some Arab neighborhoods, anti-Arab slogans appeared on Arab homes, calling on Arab residents to leave immediately.  Dalil al-Fahd, a Shi`a Arab who had lived in Kirkuk since 1960 and moved to the newly built al-Nasr II neighborhood in 1992, blamed the PUK for what happened in his neighborhood:

Frankly, their behavior was very bad.  I was against the regime of Saddam Hussein, but no one acted towards us like this.  This was done exclusively by the people of Jalal Talabani, the PUK.  They started to abuse many people in the neighborhood.  They came to our houses and wrote “Kurdistan” or “The family must leave this house within twenty-four hours or will be kicked out.”  Between each fifteen or twenty houses, they would occupy a house and put up a green (PUK) or yellow (KDP) flag. … No one was killed in our area, but four people were killed in al-Hurriyya neighborhood.  Some tried to prevent the Kurds from entering their homes, trying to defend [the honor of] their women, and they were killed.  The Kurds looted all the houses in the neighborhood, there was nothing left.120

Human Rights Watch researchers who were present in northern Iraq at the time of the fall of Kirkuk found looting and expulsions taking place in rural villages built for Arab settlers just south of Kirkuk.  In early April 2003, about 2,000 members of the al-Shummar tribe had been evicted by force from the villages of al-Muntasir, Khalid, al-Wahda, Umar Ibn al-Khattab, and Sa’ad, where they had been resettled in 1973 on agricultural land seized from Kurds.  The Arab families told Human Rights Watch that they had been forced to abandon their homes at gunpoint by armed Kurds, and ordered to leave possessions such as cars, tractors, and household goods behind.  “They would have killed us if we hadn’t left,” one elderly Arab woman explained.  When Human Rights Watch visited the area again later that month, it found the village of al-Muntasir abandoned and ransacked, and some of the homes had been spray-painted with the names of Kurds to whom the Kurdish authorities had apparently given permission to return.  A PUK official in the nearby town of Daquq explained that his party had adopted the policy that all persons resettled by the government in the north should return to their original homes.121  Senior PUK leaders denied that they were implementing a forced expulsions policy and said they would take measures to prevent further abuses.122

Serious abuses of this type committed by Kurdish forces and armed Kurdish civilians diminished significantly as U.S. forces consolidated control over Kirkuk and began acting against Kurdish abuses.  It is also likely that the Kurdish leadership itself acted against the abuses, fearing an international outcry.123  When Human Rights Watch revisited Arab neighborhoods in Kirkuk in mid-June 2003, the Arab residents claimed that the situation had stabilized and that they were no longer receiving threats to abandon their homes.  Many were, however, considering selling their homes, as explained by one resident: “Now, the situation is good but we are cautious.  So many families are selling their homes and moving to their original areas.  For the past months, our situation has been very unstable—there is no transitional government formed, there is no law, and we don’t know what will happen to us.”124

The abuses committed by armed Kurdish elements, while inexcusable, were of a limited nature and it is unclear whether they were formally sanctioned by Kurdish leaders.  The fact that only a limited number of killings and other abuses were reported strongly suggests that the Kurdish leadership—probably under pressure from their American allies—took strong steps to prevent wider abuses by their forces.  However, it is clear that Kurdish leaders are under tremendous pressure to rectify the historic injustices faced by their supporters, and may not be able to control indefinitely the demands for redress by their supporters.

The Difficulty of Resolving Kirkuk’s Property Disputes

The Kurdish leadership has declared its intention to reverse the Arabization of Kirkuk, but an orderly reversal of Arabization in Kirkuk may be more difficult than in the rural areas.  Unlike the rural farmers who were expelled en masse from villages all through the north, the urban expulsions of Kirkuk took place on an individual basis.  A large percentage of the expelled urban Kurds, Turkoman, and Assyrians also do not have property claims of the same legal strength as their rural counterparts.  With the exception of the tens of thousands of non-Arabs who fled en masse during the 1991 uprising or who were expelled soon after the crushing of the uprising when the Iraqi government leveled some Kurdish areas of Kirkuk, most of the expelled urbanites from Kirkuk either were renting the property from which they were expelled (as the government made it increasingly difficult for non-Arabs to own property in Kirkuk), or were allowed to sell their homes prior to or after their expulsion, albeit at often extortionately low prices.  Thus, while rural expellees have real property deeds to back up their claims to rural land, many of those expelled from Kirkuk only have their forced expulsion papers, and no property deeds, to back up their claim to return to Kirkuk.

Although much of the international community and the U.S. coalition feared a mass return to Kirkuk in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the city, such a mass return has not materialized.  The Kurdish families who have returned to Kirkuk and who do not have homes to reclaim have found it nearly impossible to find housing, and often end up in settlements just as wretched as those they left in the Kurdish-controlled north.  Some seven hundred returning Kurds lived for months in harsh conditions at the al-Shorja sports stadium, located near the largely ruined neighborhood from which they were expelled in 1991.125  The U.S. and the humanitarian community, concerned that a mass return to Kirkuk would spark a humanitarian crisis, devised a public information campaign to discourage expelled non-Arabs from returning to the Kirkuk until property dispute mechanisms were in place, and on several occasions U.S. officials stated that it was their policy only to meet the most basic needs of the returnees, in order to discourage further returnees.

Human Rights Watch met in June 2003 with displaced Kurds from Kirkuk living in the Benislawa IDP camp near Arbil in order to better understand their difficulties in returning to their original homes.  Almost all of the  internally displaced explained to Human Rights Watch that they could not return to Kirkuk until they were assured of housing and jobs to support themselves, and also that they were often too poor to afford to return.

Sherko Muhammad Hamid fled Kirkuk with his family during the 1991 uprising, and was able to sell his family home for a below-market rate in 1993 through an Arab agent.  He explained that he lacked the resources to return home: “I can’t afford to hire a car to go to Kirkuk.  All of the people in Benislawa are the same, no one has money to return to Kirkuk.”126

Muhammad Hamid Fattah, a father of seven children, was a shopkeeper in Kirkuk’s al-Shorja neighborhood.  In 2001, the police arrested his son and kept him in custody for twenty-one days.  Muhammad was forced to sign a paper saying that he was “voluntarily” leaving Kirkuk, and on the day his son was released, Iraqi officials brought a truck to his home and deported his family together with thirteen other families.  Muhammad does not have a home to return to in Kirkuk, as the home he used to live in actually belongs to his brother.  His meager savings have been used up during the years of living in Benislawa IDP camp without income.  He explained his predicament: “I can’t afford to go back.  Two years ago, I used to have some money.  But living here, I have spent it all.  Even if I found a way to go back to Kirkuk, the problem is that I have no house and no land.”127

The families of Dara Dawud Rasul and his two brothers were expelled from the Rahim Awa neighborhood of Kirkuk in June 1996, after they repeatedly refused to change their ethnic identity to Arab and to join the Ba`th Party.  They owned their own homes in Kirkuk, but the government bulldozed the entire neighborhood of Kurdish homes around al-Tayaran Square soon after they were expelled.  Like many families, they lacked the resources to return to Kirkuk: “We just hope someone will give us some aid.  We can’t afford to go back and rebuild our houses.  We just hope someone will give us some compensation.”128

For the Kurds who did own homes in Kirkuk and had them seized by the government, the situation was often intolerable.  Like the other displaced, they found themselves living in mud homes without running water in camps like Benislawa, in the knowledge that an Arab was living in much more comfortable surroundings in their former home in Kirkuk. Huner Nasser Fattah was expelled from Kirkuk on July 28, 2002, after he refused to change his ethnic identity, join the Ba`th Party, or become a member of the paramilitary Army of Jerusalem, and his home was seized and sold at a public auction to an Arab.  He explained that his patience was running out:

We heard that no one is allowed to go back to Kirkuk and kick Arabs out of their houses, and that the coalition forces will get the Arabs out of the houses, not us civilians.  I will just wait for another month, because I have already waited for a year and no one has done anything for us.  Then I will go back to Kirkuk and find a job, because here there is nothing.  I will go to the Arab and kick him out of my house.  The government kicked me out of this house, and the Arab bought the house from the government, knowing that it belonged to someone else.129

These anecdotal cases are supported by a May 2003 survey conducted by the U.N. Office for Project Services (UNOPS), interviewing 466 heads of households living in public buildings and transit camps in the north.130  The survey found that 69 percent of the families surveyed planned to return to their places of origin, and that the percentage of those wishing to return was particularly high among the victims of Arabization.131  Two-thirds of the families who wished to return regarded shelter as a precondition for returning.  Only 8 percent of the families surveyed stated that they had property claims, 3.4 percent for lost agricultural land, and 4.7 percent for lost homes.  The survey concluded:    

Looking at the general IDP population living in public buildings and transit camps it seems that these IDPs were vulnerable and destitute before displacement and therefore had never been the owner of extensive agricultural land or housing.  On the contrary, many of these IDPs had been living in simple shelters in villages which [were] destroyed when they were displaced.132

Despite these difficulties, the Kurdish political leadership remains adamant that Arabization must be completely reversed and that the Arabs who came under the Arabization program have to leave.  In a September 2003 interview, KDP leader Mas’ud Barzani stated: “All of the areas that had Kurdish majorities before the deliberate policies of resettling Arab families began, which was in 1961, are Kurdish.  This is why Kirkuk is not just a part of Kurdistan but its heart… These Arabs should leave, because they were brought here to “Arabize” Kurdistan.  It is impossible for the Kurds to say that the Arabs can remain.”133

Inter-ethnic Tensions in Kirkuk

Kirkuk has been the scene of some of the most severe inter-ethnic tensions in all of Iraq, and on occasion these tensions have escalated into violence.  Underlying the ethnic tensions in Kirkuk are disputes over representation and control of the city between Kurds, Turkomans, and Arabs.  Kurds claim Kirkuk as their historic capital.  Turkomans claim that Kirkuk historically had a Turkoman majority, pointing to the 1947 census conducted in Iraq (the last reliable census was that of 1957), which registered Kurds as compromising only twenty-five percent of the population of the city of Kirkuk, although their population was greater in the countryside.134  However, the demographic nature of Kirkuk has changed not only because of Arabization, but also because of its substantial expansion as the oil capital of the north.  Arabs feel marginalized in the new Kirkuk administration, and two Arab council members were boycotting the meetings of the Kirkuk city council in protest of what they considered its biased make-up in favor of the Kurds.

On occasion, the inter-ethnic tensions over control of the city have escalated into violence.  On May 17 2003, gunfights between Arabs and Kurds erupted after armed Arab men from Hawija, a majority Arab district just southwest of Kirkuk, entered Kirkuk shouting pro-Saddam Hussein slogans.  Five people were killed, and more than forty were wounded.  The Arabs were apparently responding to a rise in threats, beatings, and intimidation by Kurds against Arab residents of Kirkuk.135

In August 2003, tensions between Turkomans and Kurds exploded into deadly violence.  After Turkomans held a procession to inaugurate a rebuilt shrine to the Shi`a Imam ‘Ali Zain al-‘Abidin in the town of Tuz Khurmatu, they apparently exchanged insults with Kurdish residents of the town.  The shrine was destroyed by rocket-propelled grenade fire.  Angry Turkomans rioted, reportedly burning Kurdish flags and a police station.  The protests soon spread from Tuz Khurmatu to Kirkuk, leaving eight people dead in Tuz Khurmatu on August 22 and another three in Kirkuk the following day.  At the heart of the tensions were disputes over political control of Tuz Khurmatu, according to a local Turkoman leader.  He told the Washington Post: “We don’t feel in Tuz that we are properly represented. The Americans appointed a Kurdish mayor.  The police chief is Kurd.  Property from the previous regime has been given to the Kurds.  Yet we are the majority.”136  Further violence erupted in Kirkuk on December 31, when several thousand Arabs and Turkomans demonstrated outside the PUK office in the city, shouting “No to federalism, Kirkuk is Iraqi.”137  Shooting broke out, killing five people and wounding some twenty others.  Both PUK and Turkoman officials blamed each other for having ignited the violence.  The demonstration was apparently held in response to an earlier one which took place on December 22, when thousands of Kurds marched through Kirkuk shouting pro-federalism slogans.  Outbreaks of violence in the city continued into 2004, involving individual killings and attacks on political party offices and police stations.138

[118] Human Rights Watch, Forcible Expulsion of Ethnic Minorities (New York: Human Rights Watch, March 2003), p. 12.

[119] Human Rights Watch interview with Naji Hassan Ashur al-Shummari, Kirkuk, June 18, 2003.

[120] Human Rights Watch interview with Dalil al-Fahd, Kirkuk, June 18, 2003.

[121] Human Rights Watch press release, “Iraq: Killings, Expulsions on the Rise in Kirkuk; U.S. Not Fulfilling Duties of ‘Occupying Power,’” April 15, 2003.  See also, James Rupert, “U.S. Fears Ethnic Wars: Kurds Want to Reclaim Lands,” Newsday, April 29, 2003; Mary Beth Sheridan, “Kurds Return to Northern Iraqi City, Evicting Arabs; Hundreds being Ousted as Displaced Group Reclaims Land Taken Over 30 Years,” Washington Post, April 21, 2003.

[122] During subsequent visits to the area, Human Rights Watch found that the Arab residents of four of the villages were still living there, and for a short period in the early summer of 2003 they were protected by a battalion of U.S. forces that had set up camp in the abandoned village of al-Muntasir.  The Arab inhabitants of that village had dispersed at the time of the original expulsions and never returned.  Human Rights Watch met two brothers who were former residents of al-Muntasir in Kirkuk in January 2004.  They said they and several other families were currently living in the village of al-Suwaida, located between Tuz Khurmatu and Tikrit in the Hamrin mountains.  They described their living conditions as difficult, dependent as they were on the hospitality of the people of al-Suwaida for shelter and food, and had come to Kirkuk to seek help from governorate officials.  They expressed concern about their uncertain future, not knowing from one day to the next when they would be asked to move on.  When asked what had happened to other families from al-Muntasir (ninety-two families in all, comprising some 547 individuals), they said contact with them had long since been lost (Human Rights Watch interviews with Jassem Muhammad Maz’al and Salem Muhammad Maz’al, Kirkuk, January 10, 2004).

[123] PUK leader Jalal Talabani declared in late April that it was the PUK’s policy to halt all expulsions.   See James Rupert, “U.S. Fears Ethnic Wars: Kurds Want to Reclaim Lands,” Newsday, April 29, 2003

[124] Human Rights Watch interview with Naji Hassan Ashur al-Shummari, Kirkuk, June 18, 2003.

[125] Sharon Waxman, “Land of No Return: For Iraqi Kurds Displaced by Arabs—and Vice Versa—Home is a Place in the Distant Past,” Washington Post, June 24, 2003.

[126] Human Rights Watch interview with Sherko Muhammad Hamid, Benislawa, June 4, 2003.

[127] Human Rights Watch interview with Muhammad Hamid Fattah, Benislawa, June 4, 2003.

[128] Human Rights Watch interview with Dara Dawud Rasul, Benislawa, June 4, 2003.

[129] Human Rights Watch interview with Huner Nasser Fattah, Benislawa, June 4, 2003.

[130] UNOPS, “Trends and Movements: Survey on Internally Displaced People Residing in Public Buildings,” May 2003.

[131] In Sulaimaniyya governorate, where the majority of displaced were expelled from Kirkuk, 89 percent of families wanted to return to their places of origin.  In Duhok governorate, where a large number of families were displaced due to fighting between Iraq-based PKK fighters and Turkish forces, only 58 percent wanted to return. Ibid.

[132] Ibid.

[133] Andrea Nusse, “Die Araber Sollten Kurdistan Wieder Verlassen,” Frankfurter Rundschau, September 16, 2003.

[134] David McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 1996), p. 314.

[135] Sabrina Tavernise, “Arabs and Kurds Clash in Kirkuk, And at Least Five Are Killed,” New York Times, May 18, 2003. According to the New York Times: “The violence began three days ago, when Kurds harassed Arabs in an outdoor market and a bridge called Asho-Hada. Rouad Aziz, a resident of Qadesiyah, said he had been beaten and threatened by Kurds on Friday. The Kurdish police said Arabs had cut the throats of four Kurds in another neighborhood the day before. The body of a man who had been decapitated was in the city morgue yesterday.”

[136] Daniel Williams, “11 Killed in Ethnic Violence in Northern Iraq; U.S. troops Intervene in Riots, Slaying Six,” Washington Post, August 24, 2003.

[137] Adnan Hadi, “Five die as tensions erupt in Iraqi city,” Reuters. December 31, 2003.

[138] Peter Spiegel, “Ethnic violence breaks out in Kurdish region,” Financial Times, January 2, 2004; Jeffrey Gettleman, “Bombing Leaves a Northern Iraqi City Feeling Vulnerable,” New York Times, February 24, 2004; “Iraqi civilian killed in attack on Kurdish Party offices,” Agence France-Presse, February 26, 2004; “Ethnic tension divides Kirkuk city council,” Reuters, March 28, 2004.

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