Kurdish militias reclaim land, leaving Arabs homeless

Arabs say they've received eviction notices, but Kirkuk governor denies any official policy.

The liberation had hardly begun when the eviction notices arrived.

Sometimes they came in written form, Arab residents here say. Sometimes they came in the form of carloads of Kurdish gunmen, warning Arabs who have lived here for three decades that they had three days to get out.

"They came and told us we have to leave so that there will be no killing," says Khalaf Nasaf I-Shumari, the aging sheikh of a small village called Omar Ibn Khattab, about a half-hour's drive south of the city of Kirkuk.

"They gave us a paper, signed by the local authorities, which said we have to leave in three days," says Atiye Awad I-Shummari, a resident of the same village.

"They held up their guns in my direction and told me to leave," says Alwan Humayed I-Shummari, who tried two days ago to go back to the village they fled over the weekend. They set up tents outside the larger nearby Arab village of Saad looking for safety in numbers.

It is no coincidence that all three men have the same family name. They come from the same Arab Bedouin tribe, which once wandered with their flock near the borders of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. From his earliest years in power, Saddam Hussein plucked them and thousands of other Arabs out of southern Iraq and moved them to the country's predominantly Kurdish north - an area bursting with oil.

Mr. Hussein gave the Arab migrants rich farmland that belonged to Kurdish tribes. Most of the Arab settlers were also given money to build a house. Others moved into houses that Kurds were thrown out of in Hussein's brutal campaigns against them.

Now, with Kurdish forces running Kirkuk and its environs, Hussein's "Arabization" policy is coming back to haunt its beneficiaries - shepherds and farmers who had little say in the matter. Senior Kurdish officials, in interviews, say that the Baath Party's project to turn this into a more Arab area was wrong and must be righted.

But while leaders in the two main Kurdish parties say that must be done gradually, in a legal and humane way, groups of Kurdish militiamen - and possibly lower-level officials - appear to be taking the matter into their own hands.

A Human Rights Watch team visiting the region this week said that they saw several copies of eviction notices signed by a local official for the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), the party that now has de facto control over the Kirkuk region. The researchers say they received consistent reports from Arabs in this region that they are being threatened with force and told to leave their homes.

"The party line is that people should be returning to wherever they came from, and the way they've been evicted is this three- day notice," says Hania Mufti, the London director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. She says that US occupation forces have an obligation to stop forced population movements - a violation of Article 3 of the Geneva Convention on war crimes.

"Whatever the Kurdish forces do reflects on the US forces here, and someone has to be in charge."

The most senior official in the PUK is Faridoon Abdul Qadir, the party's interior minister who is now acting as Kirkuk's interim governor. He says that there is no official drive to push Arabs out of northern Iraq, and that such papers - allegedly signed by the PUK - are forgeries. When Arabs came to his office this week carrying their eviction notices, he tore them up and asked that they ignore the notice.

"The regime wanted to change the demographic balance, and now Arabs are [her in] approximately the same number as Kurds," says Mr. Qadir, whose office has been inundated with complaints from Arabs and Kurds.

Hussein brought at least 150,000 to 200,000 Arabs to the city in the past three decades, he says. "I've done a lot of legal research and legally, that [Kurd] who was thrown out has a right to go back to his house," he says. "But I told everyone to stop this. I told both sides not to rush the matter and not try to come to a quick solution," he says. "I told the Arabs that I won't let anyone throw them out." All the land and property disputes, he says, must be settled in a court process.

But away from urban Kirkuk, Kurdish authorities do not appear to have much sympathy for Arabs now under their rule. In Daquq - the PUK office from which Arabs claim the eviction notices originated - the interim governor says there is no policy to remove Arabs from the area - yet.

"I didn't send out any letter like that, and I didn't tell anyone to evacuate anyone, say Ako Ahmad, the acting governor of the Daquq region. "They are really Baath Party members and are afraid for themselves. They have a lot of weapons there - I heard about the possibility of chemical weapons."

"Because these people were criminals and they supported [Hussein]," Mr. Ahmad says, "they are afraid for their lives."

According to Ahmad, the PUK's pesh merga fighters have not tried to remove any Arabs from the area. But he says he cannot prevent Kurds who were removed from this area years ago from trying to return to their homes. "It's their land and their rights," he says.

To be sure, thousands of Kurds were driven out of this area under the Baath Party, and many would like to return. Kurds who are hoping to build their current autonomous government into a federal state within a united Iraq view Kirkuk as a natural part of that regional state - and view the newest Arab residents as unfairly tipping the balance away from a Kurdish majority.

But after an entire generation of living here, many of these Arabs view the region as home, and would like to stay.

"I was born here, and this is my home," says Alwan Humayed I-Shummari, a father with three wives and 17 children. He could not bear to tell them they had to leave their home - so instead he said they were only going away for a while - to a bleak tent with a dirt floor turned to mud by a chilly April rainstorm.

In the city of Kirkuk itself, several Arab families say Kurdish gunmen have been coming to their neighborhoods, often shooting guns in the air and issuing orders to leave. The PUK official who is now acting as the city's mayor, Rizgar Ali Hamjan, says there is no policy to evict Arabs from the city. But, he says, those who have moved here should leave voluntarily.

"The right thing is that they return by themselves," he says. "If they have some feeling of justice, they must go back to where they're from."

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