Kurds turn tables on Iraqi Arabs

Revenge: After decades of forced relocation, newly victorious Kurds are expelling thousands of Arabs from their homes.

War in Iraq

April 14, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SA'AD BIN ABI WAQAS, Iraq - Two Arab mothers and their children sat forlornly in the dirt, one household among scattered families living in the open on the outskirts of this agricultural village.

Before them on dirty cushions were a pair of tiny, wheezing infants; one was 24 days old, the other 35 days old. Both looked ill. Shiya Juma Mohammad, mother of the younger baby, pleaded for help.

"We need food," she said. "We need medical service. We need security. We need to go home."

Mohammad and her trembling infant were victims of a new wave of intimidation and crime in northern Iraq. They are among thousands of Iraqi Arabs expelled from their homes by armed Kurds, one of the Americans' most exuberant allies in the war against President Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi Arabs here were ordered by the Kurds to move away within three days.

Forced expulsion has long been a tool of the Iraqi government. Since the late 1960s, Hussein's Baath Party has relocated huge segments of Iraq's population, either to suppress uprisings or to skew demographics near oil fields in favor of the ruling Arab class.

Now, days after seizing control of Kirkuk, an ethnically diverse city located astride Iraq's northern oil field, Kurds are forcing Arabs in outlying villages to move from their homes, leaving entire hamlets nearly abandoned and crowding some families into wheat fields that have become home to hastily erected camps.

For decades, Kurds have complained of abuses, including intimidation, expulsions and property seizures. Now, the newly prominent Kurds are indulging in some of Hussein's abuses themselves.

The intimidation appears widespread and suggests problems for U.S. postwar plans in Iraq, and for efforts to improve relations with Arabs suspicious of American intentions.

The rush of intimidation and thievery dismayed senior Kurdish officials yesterday, who said the crimes were not a matter of policy, but the work of freebooters, perhaps even low-ranking Kurdish officials, who would soon be brought in check.

"The mistakes of Saddam, we are repeating them," said Sheik Abdul Karim Haji, a member of parliament in the Kurdish autonomous zone who has been trying to ease relations among ethnic groups in and around Kirkuk. "We are against, absolutely against, what has happened."

Yet one official for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the dominant armed Kurdish party near Kirkuk, suggested that a policy of expelling Arabs has the approval of the United States.

The official, Salam Kakai, deputy chief of the Patriotic Union's office in Daquq, which has been issuing expulsion orders to Arab Bedouins in this village, said the people who had defeated the Iraqi army had ordered Arabs to relocate.

It is a message radically different from what Washington had been hoping would reach Arab ears.

"We have an order that the people should go back to their original places, from the PUK leaders, and from the coalition," he said. "We carry out orders."

Senior Patriotic Union officials said no official order for expulsions had been issued and that the order contradicted the stance by Jalal Talabani, the Patriotic Union's general secretary, who has publicly advocated a tolerant, multiethnic Iraq.

Talabani's position and call for tolerance faces a difficult history. Kurds have been expelled from Kirkuk and surrounding villages for at least 35 years, replaced in many cases by Arabs who were forced in by Iraq's ruling Baath Party, or lured to formerly Kurdish neighborhoods with subsidized housing.

In many cases, Arabs now live in homes seized from Kurds years ago. A central component of the Kurdish resistance to Hussein was the freedom of Kirkuk and the restoration of property to Kurds.

Shalaw Ali Askari, a veteran Kurdish guerrilla and an envoy from Talabani to try to improve relations in and around Kirkuk, said problems stemmed from lawlessness, not from any decision by the party's leadership. He said he would try to meet with tribal leaders today to assure them that Arabs could remain in their homes, at least for now.

Sa'ad bin Abi Waqas is one of five villages south of Kirkuk where residents have been notified by the Patriotic Union's office in Daquq to vacate their homes by today. On a tour yesterday, researchers for Human Rights Watch, an independent group, said they found credible accounts of 2,000 people already displaced from the area.

A senior Kurdish official said last night that there also had been reports of rapes committed by looters or vandals in another village. The official said the reports were being investigated.

Many Bedouins said they had supported the removal of Hussein.

"Saddam," said Mohammad Muzir Shahim, standing with other angry men in this village when three Western journalists and the Human Rights Watch team arrived. "Hitler No. 2."

But Arabs facing expulsion complained bitterly yesterday that the United States had not moved quickly enough to provide civil authority.

"We were in one prison with Saddam, and we are in another prison now," Shahim said.

Around him, in several directions, were villages nearly emptied, including al-Muntasir, where the houses have been ransacked. In one, family pictures were still hanging on a wall.

"Kurds destroyed this," said Shakir Jindar, an Arab standing by the door.

Beside him, the outer walls of houses have been uniformly painted with new names, in yellow, apparently Kurds who intend to move in and assert what they regard as their historic land claim.

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