Iraqis battle for homes of Kirkuk

Conflict: Disputes over property could trigger a bloody cycle of vengeance between Arabs and Kurds.

War in Iraq

April 17, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KIRKUK, Iraq - On Monday, Hamid Abdul-Razaq found squatters in his house, gave them 24 hours to leave, and by early yesterday they had complied. They were gone, along with his furniture, his refrigerator, stove and just about everything else.

"It is a very ugly thing," he said, wading in leather shoes through a flood unleashed when someone yanked the toilet from the wall. "You come home and everything is looted. I am astounded by this."

The occupation and ransacking of Abdul-Razaq's home is part of the settling of old ethnic scores, a legacy of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's strategy to divide and rule. For most of the 1980s and 1990s, the regime favored Iraqi Arabs over Iraqi Kurds, favoritism that extended to expelling Kurds from their homes and villages and inviting Arabs to take their place.

Now, people in northern Iraq fear that disputes over property could trigger a bloody cycle of vengeance among the region's mosaic of ethnic, tribal and political groups.

Abdul-Razaq is an Arab, a farmer and chief of the Jabour tribe, about 200 related families who have lived for generations in the southern districts of this city. Like many other Kirkuk residents, he fled last week after the city's capture by a Kurdish force assisted by American Special Forces.

In the logic that prevails here, his decision to flee the chaos put his home up for grabs. When he ventured back on Monday, he found that the family of a Kurdish fighter had broken the lock on the front door and moved in. On a wall out front, the squatters spray-painted their emotional claim to the property: "This house controlled by a family whose son was killed by the Iraqi army."

Abdul-Razaq, a burly man with a mustache and goatee, pleaded with the armed Kurd and his family to leave, but they refused. So he appealed to the fighter's superiors at the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, one of two main Kurdish factions. The group sent guerrillas to ask their comrade to get out.

The family left yesterday. Around the same time, someone looted and vandalized the house, destroying nearly everything left behind.

Relocation and revenge

For at least 35 years, the Iraqi government forced tens of thousands of politically suspect Kurdish and Turkman families out of Kirkuk, which is situated near some of the world's richest oil fields. At the same time, Baghdad bullied or bribed tens of thousands of Arabs from southern Iraq to move here.

After suffering decades of discrimination, some Kurds have decided to retaliate in kind. Kurdish fighters have moved into many vacant homes owned by Arabs in Kirkuk. Some Kurdish freebooters are trying to expel Arab families from farming villages south of the city.

Fearing violence, many Arab families in that area have moved out of their homes and into tents. Others have formed armed vigilante groups to protect themselves - firing on suspicious-looking motorists.

Top officials with the PUK and the other major Kurdish faction, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, say they oppose the evictions but won't order their fighters to vacate homes abandoned by owners.

"Some people who were with Saddam Hussein, who did miserable things, were afraid after the liberation," said Salhaddin Ibrahim Kadir, chief of the KDP in Kirkuk. "So they ran away from Kirkuk, and their houses were empty. The Kurds who returned, they have no houses. When someone came and saw an empty house, as is natural, he opened the door and went in the house."

Abdul Khadir Faradun, chief of the PUK in Kirkuk, said his group has been busy trying to stop ethnic and political fighting over property ownership. Last weekend, he said, five PUK soldiers and an officer were killed while trying to mediate between Kurds and Arabs fighting over control of the Arab village of Howaja, about 25 miles south.

Faradun said the wife of a former security official recently came in to complain that a Kurdish fighter, a pesh merga, had moved into her family's home.

"Her husband was a very ugly man," he said. "But I took the pesh merga out and gave them back their home. If anyone comes to me and wants to return to his house, I will help them."

Abdul-Razaq lives next door to his brother-in-law, a colonel in Hussein's military. Kurdish fighters had occupied that house as well. Abdul-Razaq persuaded them to leave.

"I told them the owner bought the house with his own money, that he lived in Kirkuk for more than 30 years" and wasn't one of the Arabs moved in under Hussein's effort to alter Kirkuk's ethnic mix, he said.

The squatters left. But as they did so, someone broke down doors and rifled through closets, perhaps in search of money or valuables.

Looters also rampaged through the home of Abdul-Razaq's brother, who lives about a mile away.

"They took everything," said Raja Mahdi Akhmad, Abdul-Razaq's sister-in-law. "And the things they didn't take, they broke."

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