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Iraq: 'Arabization' Of Kurdish Areas Poses Challenge For Any Post-Saddam Order

  • Charles Recknagel

As Washington talks about possible military action against Baghdad, the discussion is increasingly focusing on the challenges of creating a stable post-Saddam Iraq. One problem is the northern city of Kirkuk. The historically predominantly Kurdish city is claimed by the Iraqi Kurds as their capital, but Iraq's Arab governments have long sought to force out the Kurds and "Arabize" the oil-rich area instead. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at city and the challenges it poses.

Prague, 18 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- No one knows precisely how many Kurds and members of other minority groups have been forced out of northern Iraq's predominantly Kurdish districts of Kirkuk, Khanaqin and Sinjar, to be replaced by settlers from Iraq's Arab majority.

But estimates, including one by the U.S. Committee for Refugees, a human rights group in Washington, D.C., put the number at well over 100,000 people during the past 10 years alone. The estimates are based on rough counts of the number of people who have fled from these districts into the Kurdish-controlled enclave on Iraq's border with Turkey and Iran.

The evictions are part of a stepped-up but already decades-long campaign by the Arab-based government in Baghdad to change the demographics of a large swath of northern Iraq, which historically has had a mixed but predominantly Kurdish population.

Hiwa Osman, a London-based independent journalist who frequently visits northern Iraq, says Baghdad's goal is to create an Arab-populated belt that would secure its northern oil fields from the country's Kurdish minority and neighboring states:

"They basically wanted to create this buffer of new Arab settlers in the Kurdish areas to the south of the Kurdish-controlled [enclave]. The security belt is to protect the oil fields."

The region targeted for this "Arabization" campaign runs from Iraq's northwestern border with Syria, through the northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, to the northeastern border with Iran. It lies outside northern Iraq's self-governing Kurdish enclave, which has been protected by a U.S.- and British-patrolled no-fly zone since the 1991 Gulf War.

Most of the population expulsions occur in areas which Baghdad considers to be of particular strategic or economic importance, such as the urban center of Kirkuk, potential oil fields, and fertile agricultural land. The forced population movements have been carried out intermittently by authorities in Baghdad since the late 1930s and were accelerated after the Baath Party, with a pan-Arab nationalist ideology, seized power in 1968. Hundreds of thousands more Kurds fled into the Kurdish-controlled enclave after the Kurdish rebellion against Saddam Hussein following the Gulf War.

In recent years, the deportation program often has taken the form of Iraqi officials giving Kurds and members of other minorities in the area a choice of either changing their officially listed ethnic identity to "Arab" or leaving their homes. Those who refuse are immediately deported to the Kurdish-controlled enclave. Those who agree are permitted sometimes to stay in their homes but more often are relocated to areas of southern Iraq that have an Arab majority.

Mike Amitay, head of the Kurdish Institute in Washington, D.C., says that the decades of expulsions have changed the demographics of the city of Kirkuk to the point that today it is unclear whether it retains its traditionally predominant Kurdish character:

"There is no doubt that the demographics of the city have changed significantly, and it very well might be that there is no longer a Kurdish majority in that city."

"The Washington Times" recently reported that, according to official Iraqi figures, Kirkuk's Kurdish population fell from 47 percent of the total population to 38 percent during the period from 1957 to 1977. At the same time, the proportion of Arabs rose from 28 percent to 44 percent. No newer census figures are available.

What has happened in Kirkuk is likely to pose a major challenge to establishing a new order in Iraq should Washington push ahead with plans to attack Iraq if Baghdad does not give up its suspected weapons of mass destruction programs.

Amitay says that many of those who have been forcibly expelled from Kirkuk are living in makeshift camps or housing in the Kurdish enclave and are eager to return to their original homes. But those homes are now occupied by Arab settlers who have been given incentives, or in some cases been pressed, by Baghdad to move there.

"It [poses] the question of what will happen post-Saddam, whether people will move back to their homes in Kirkuk. The Kurdish governments have not been able to resettle all of these people. Many of them are still in IDP (internally displaced persons) camps and would be very eager to return to their homes, but many of their homes are occupied by Arab settlers. So the question is what will the disposition of all these issues become once the regime changes."

Another key problem is who would administer Kirkuk in any new Iraqi order. The two major Kurdish factions endorse a federal solution for Iraq and last month agreed between themselves on a draft constitution that envisions a Kurdish administration in the northern region. The Kurdish leaders also have called for making the oil-rich city of Kirkuk their regional capital.

The call for making Kirkuk part of a federal Kurdish region is almost certain to make the city once again the centerpiece of Kurdish-Arab tensions in Iraq.

Correspondent Osman says that past Kurdish revolts against Baghdad have often been tied to frictions over Kirkuk and that subsequent peace negotiations have frequently fallen apart while attempting to define the city's status:

"There has always been a dispute over the identity of Kirkuk between the Kurds and the various central governments. No Iraqi government has been opposed to the Kurds being in wherever they are today [in the Kurdish-controlled areas]. The whole issue of dispute has been Kirkuk. So many past negotiations fell apart because of the non-agreement over the status of Kirkuk."

The Iraqi opposition in exile has yet to make a unified statement on the issue of Kirkuk or the larger issue of the decades-long Arabization campaign in northern Iraq. But Jalal Talibani, leader of one of the two Kurdish factions, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), has said he believes many predominantly Arab groups oppose the expulsion policy. He said this includes the opposition umbrella group the Iraqi National Congress.

As Kurds and Iraqi Arabs face the issue of how to administer Kirkuk -- with some form of multiple administration by the Kurds and the central government as one possibility -- other challenges loom over what Iraq's powerful neighbor Turkey would accept.

Turkish officials have repeatedly warned they will not tolerate the creation of anything that looks like a Kurdish mini-state in Iraq with control over key oil resources around Kirkuk that would make it economically self-sustaining. Turkey fears that this might incite its own restive Kurdish minority to seek autonomy, too.

Turkey's Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said last week that Ankara would intervene to prevent Kirkuk becoming a Kurdish-controlled city. He said, "There's no need for an intervention at the moment ... [but] it will be out of the question to approve of an arrangement in northern Iraq that runs contrary to Turkey's national interests."

Balancing all the conflicting interests over Kirkuk could ultimately fall to Washington if U.S. officials go ahead with plans to topple Saddam's regime and replace it with an interim coalition authority -- as some top U.S. officials have suggested.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the special assistant to the U.S. president for the Near East, Southwest Asian and North African Affairs, said last week that Washington could install a U.S.-led military government in Iraq to assure a transition to an elected civilian government. He said that under such plans a U.S.-led coalition "will assume ... responsibility for the territorial defense and security of Iraq after liberation."

He did not say how long such an authority might remain in place.

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