North of Mosul, with the mountains of Kurdistan rising in the distance, is a little village called Domiz. It's a modest place, filled with prefabricated gray houses and small wilting gardens. But it's a place to call home. In fact, it's a place more than one group calls home - and therein lies the problem.
Kurds once owned this land. But during the 1980s, they were pushed north, like so many Kurds from villages around here, to make room for Arab families as part of Saddam Hussein's "Arabization" campaign. The Arabs built schools and mosques; the Kurds stayed away, nursing memories. Now, with Mr. Hussein gone, they want their land back.
"I can understand. But, alas, we already live here," says Nashwan Mohammad Khalil, a longtime Arab resident of Domiz. "Saddam is gone, good riddance, but oh my, the problems he left behind."
Ethnic tensions and land disputes between Kurds, Christians, Arabs, Turks, and other minorities in Iraq will long outlive the regime of the man who fanned them. Worse yet, as those who suffered most from Arabization move to reverse its effects, new and complex problems are arising. While American intervention seems to be staving off an immediate crisis, a future clash seems inevitable - and could prove the most destabilizing factor in northern Iraq.
In the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk, a new term has been coined in recent weeks: "Takrid" or "Kurdification." Officials from the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) have occupied abandoned government buildings; Kurdish professors have been bused in and told it is their "ethnic duty" to transfer here; Kurdish money is being used at shops; and the local TV station runs patriotic Kurdish programs.
This past weekend, 10 Kurds were killed in gun battles with Arabs. In an attempt to stem the violence, the 101st Airborne Division, tasked with controlling most of the north, decided earlier this month to wade into the delicate subject of ethnicity and land ownership. Their point of entry was the small village of Domiz, which may be the next flash point in this brewing conflict - though not if a US effort to help Kurds and Arabs to coexist takes hold.
The land of Domiz, everyone agrees, once belonged to Kurds. But the houses on it were commissioned in 1986 by Hussein and given to senior Baath officers. By the mid-1990s, most of the houses had changed hands and now belonged to Arabs unassociated with the regime. The US, however, guided by information from their Kurdish allies that the original owners were still there, bombed Domiz during this war, killing some 15 villagers.
Hundreds of Domiz families fled south to Mosul, heaping mattresses and cooking utensils and children onto trucks and joining thousands of other fleeing Arabs. The nongovernmental organization World Vision has registered 3,000 displaced Arabs in Mosul so far. "We are worried," says program officer Margaret Chilcott "... that this is just the tip of the iceberg."
Those Arabs who tried to return to Domiz after the war found Kurds cooking in their kitchens and sleeping in their bedrooms. Kurdish fighters patrolled the streets. "I found a family hanging up laundry on my laundry line," recalls one local man, Hazzam Hassan Mohammad Hussein, tearfully. "The Kurds told me that I should start looking for another laundry line, as well as another home. I would have protested. But they had guns."
In Mosul, the Domiz Arabs, led by Nashwan, started demonstrating. "We did not expect much because Kurds and Americans are allies, but we had nothing to lose, so we tried," he recalls. "As it turned out we found the Americans are fair. They know so much about justice. We were surprised."
"We told the Kurds we absolutely appreciated their position and we want to do right by our allies - but we couldn't allow the creation of a new refugee problem," explains Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the Army's 101st Airborne Division. "We needed to find a settlement immediately, otherwise this could spiral."
Citing agreements between the US and Kurdish leaders to keep conditions on the ground in their prewar state until political decisionmakers decreed otherwise, the 101st accompanied the Arab residents of Domiz back home - in Humvees and helicopters. The soldiers disarmed the Kurdish militiamen, told the Kurdish families hanging up laundry that they would have to find their own homes, and set up base in an old schoolhouse.
And by the way, suggested members of the 101st, looking around, "...why don't you just share the village?"
There are close to 100 empty houses in Domiz, as well as dozens of Arab families who want to sell and move away. Nashwan - now the baseball-cap wearing, US- appointed mayor - jumped at the idea. A Kurdish deputy mayor was appointed, a city council with equal representation was quickly put in place, and a real estate office was set up to record sales. Within two weeks 104 new Kurdish families had indicated they wanted to move in - and American officers found themselves giving classes on basic civics and the rights of minority groups.
"We knew about these issues of democracy in theory, but we never practiced them before," admits Nashwan. "Personally, I am so impressed with this system." The Kurds, he stressed, "are our brothers, and we welcome them to live with us - only not in our very houses."
"The beauty of dealing with the old generation is that they remember how it used to be," General Petraeus says. "The young have not experienced good coexistence, but for the older generations it is normal.The kingpins of the old regime are all gone, and we play on that here, trying to get communities to work and live together."
Yet it is yet unclear if this American intervention will solve the problems of the region in the long run. "In the 1980s close to 1,000 Kurdish villages were destroyed completely," says Nechirvan Ahmed, the Kurdish governor of nearby Dahuk district which claims authority over Domiz.
"Those [Kurds who] remained behind were not allowed to speak their language or practice their traditions. It is wrong to expect us to live side by side with those who supported ethnic cleansing against us." The Arabs, claims Ahmed, actually owe the Kurds compensation for all the years they used the land, so it is preposterous to ask [the Kurds] to purchase houses. He has put out word that no Kurd should buy a house in Domiz, or cooperate with the mixed council there.
"With the liberation of Iraq, our villages were supposed to return to us. Even the Arabs realized this and packed up and left," he says. "I do not understand what the Americans are doing. They are putting themselves into a conflict where they have no business and setting a bad precedent."