Simmering Land Disputes in Kurdistan Could Boil
Over Into Violence
all the violence and crime that have stricken much of central and
southern Iran in recent months, the northern region of Kurdistan
has remained relatively quiet.
beneath that calm, according to a new report released Tuesday by
Human Rights Watch (HRW), lies simmering tensions over conflicting
land claims between Kurds, Turkmens, and Arabs living in the region
that could burst into armed conflict at any time due to the failure
thus far for the authorities either the U.S.-led Coalition
Provisional Authority (CPA) or the new government headed by Interim
President Iyad Allawi to begin resolving those disputes.
on all sides is running out, according to the 78-page report, "Claims
in Conflict: Reversing Ethnic Cleansing in Northern Iraq,"
as tens of thousands of Kurds, as well as Turkmens and Assyrians,
who were forced out of their homes during the three decades that
preceded last year's U.S.-led invasion, remain camped out, often
in dire conditions, waiting to reclaim the homes they lost in the
Ba'athist regime's "Arabization" program.
the same time, thousands of Arabs who were forced to leave their
homes as Kurdish militias, or peshmerga, advanced into southern
Kurdistan and into the oil center of Kirkuk, which Iraqi Kurds regard
as their spiritual capital, during the first months of the U.S.
occupation, are also living out in temporary camps, waiting for
their fates to be resolved and with nowhere else to go.
these property disputes are not addressed as a matter of urgency,
rising tensions between returning Kurds and Arab settlers could
soon explode into open violence," said Sarah Leah Whitson,
executive director of HRW's Middle East and North Africa division.
must be done for the victims of what was effectively an ethnic cleansing
campaign to permanently alter the ethnic make-up of northern Iraq,"
experts have warned that the failure to settle the claims, particularly
in Kirkuk, could be one of the flashpoints for the kind of conflict
that could tear the country apart.
by the central government in Baghdad to move Arabs, centered primarily
in the middle and southern parts of the country, northwards into
regions dominated by Kurds, Turkmens, and Assyrians. Beginning in
the mid-1970s, however, "Arabization" on a massive scale
began in earnest following the creation by the Ba'athist government
of an autonomous zone in parts of Iraqi Kurdistan.
that period, some 250,000 Kurds and other non-Arabs were expelled
from a huge swath of northern Iraq, ranging from Khanaqin along
the Iranian border to Sinjar on the Syrian-Turkish border. Land
titles held by non-Arabs were invalidated, and landless Arabs and
their families from the nearby al-Jazeera desert were brought in
to occupy and lease what was declared government land.
1988, the Iraqi government launched the infamous Anfal campaign
against the Kurds, killing some 100,000, destroying many of their
villages, and leaving hundreds of thousands more Kurds homeless.
Most were not allowed to return home, and their property rights
were invalidated, while Arabs from the south were brought in to
settle their lands.
the 1990s and until the eve of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq,
Kurds and other non-Arabs in Kirkuk faced constant harassment and
were sometimes forced to choose between being expelled or joining
the Ba'ath Party, changing their ethnic identity to Arab, and joining
paramilitary forces in support of the regime. Approximately 120,000
people were expelled from Kirkuk and other areas during this time,
while Arabs were encouraged to settle in their place through financial
the United Nations counted a total of more than 800,000 displaced
people, virtually all of whom had come from "Arabized"
areas living in that part of northern Iraq that was protected by
the U.S.- and British-enforced no-fly zone on the eve of the U.S.-led
invasion which drastically altered the situation, according to HRW.
A large number of Arab settlers and their families left their homes
in advance of the arrival of Kurdish and U.S. forces, leaving entire
Arabized villages empty. While many displaced Kurds hope to return
to them, however, they have not yet done so, in large part because
they are simply too poor to rebuild their homes and because the
mechanism for determining claims to properties has not yet begun
the other hand, Kurds have tried to return to homes in Kirkuk and
Mosul where Arabs, however, have been reluctant to leave, steadily
adding to tensions both between Kurds and Arabs and Kurds
and Turkmens in those two urban areas. In some cases, Kurds
and peshmerga have tried to expel Arabs through threats and intimidation,
provoking clashes inter-communal clashes in Kirkuk, in particular.
are flocking back to Kirkuk, but the city has little capacity to
absorb them," said Whitson. "They are living in abandoned
buildings and tent camps without running water or electricity supplies,
and they face precarious security conditions."
the same time, little effort has gone into finding solutions for
the "Arabization Arabs" who themselves have no place to
go, particularly with the national economy in such difficult straits.
Many of the Arabs who have left or been forced to leave their homes
have lived in the region for as much as three decades but now find
themselves living in makeshift shelters without basic services waiting
for property claims to be resolved or for new programs for their
report notes that the U.S.-led CPA essentially failed to address
any of these issues or to implement a strategy to resolve claims.
Although legislation to establish an Iraq Property Claims Commission
(IPCC) was passed last January, orders for its operation were only
finalized just before the handover to the interim government. Worse,
the legislation failed to provide mechanisms to help Arabs who had
lost or will lose their claims to property in the north, leaving
them in a particularly uncertain state.
process of seeking redress for the displaced Kurds and others must
not lead to new injustices against Arab settlers," said Whitson.
the Kurdish leadership has failed to put into place a coordinated
and unified policy for dealing with the ongoing and anticipated
influx of displaced Kurds and other non-Arabs and their families
into Kirkuk and other areas or to provide for their humanitarian
said that many of the Arab settlers interviewed for the report last
year indicated that they recognized Kurdish claims to their properties
and were willing to give up their homes in return for aid and help
in finding new homes and livelihoods. But, with the passage of time,
it appeared that all sides were becoming increasingly impatient
with the lack of progress in both resettlement and the provision
of aid, contributing to a steady rise in tensions throughout the
Lobe is Inter Press Service's correspondent in Washington, DC.
© 2004 One World