Focus on increasing displacement in Kirkuk

5/3/2005 8:10:00 AM

The Iraqi city of Kirkuk has been the scene of ethnic tension since the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003.

The recent return of Kurds who were forcibly removed by Saddam has added to the local problems and led to the displacement of Arab Iraqis sent there as part of the former government's "Arabisation" of the key oil city.

Increasing numbers of the existing local population are now leaving according to officials and NGOs working in Kirkuk, which is 255 km north of the capital, Baghdad.

A local government official who did not want to be named, said that nearly 16,830 Kurdish families have moved to the city since March 2004.

They are living in old government buildings or are camped in the outskirts of the city, waiting to return to homes they say they were forcibly removed from.

The official confirmed that an additional 830 families had joined the group three weeks ago, putting further pressure on Arab residents of the city to leave.

This rise, he said, could be due to the fact that the new Iraqi president is of Kurdish origin, leading Kurds to believe that they now have the right to return through unofficial means.

The Kurds have 77 parliamentary seats in the new national assembly as well as the position of president occupied by Jalal Talabani. A spokesman at Talabani's office in Baghdad said that the new president had not yet decided on the sensitive issue of Kirkuk but affirmed to IRIN that Kurds would be welcome to return to the city.

International organisations are concerned that the situation could get out of control.

"On one side it's extremely important to them that oppressed Kurds have the presidency of the country but on the other side they have been making clear that they don't want to be part of Iraq and it's that which concerns the future of Kirkuk," Joest Hilterman, a spokesman for the International Crisis Group (ICG), told IRIN, in Kirkuk following discussions with the Kurdish community.

HISTORY

Saddam Hussein banished Kurds from the oil-rich city of Kirkuk as part of his Arabisation programme which started in the 1970s, placing Arabs in wealthier residential areas.

Some 250,000 Kurds and other non-Arabs, were forced to give up their homes and leave the city by the Baath regime, mainly in 1997, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Most went to northern Iraq and some moved in with relatives but many ended up in squalid camps such as al-Salam, near Chamchamal, on the southern tip of the region and Benislawa, near the northern city of Arbil.

Those displaced were assisted by local Kurdish authorities and foreign aid agencies.

INCREASING DISPLACEMENT

"There were around 400 families camped in this area, now there are 650. I cannot believe that no one can see this mess and feel what we are suffering. With the Kurds in power our situation has became worse," 56-year-old Hussein Azize, told IRIN in a makeshift camp populated by Kurdish returnees on the outskirts of Kirkuk.

According to the Arab Displacement Union (ADU), a local NGO, more than 4,000 Arab families have been made homeless since the conflict of 2003.

Less than 25 percent can return to the south of Iraq and most are camped outside the region, in the cities of Diwania, Diala and near the southern city of Basra, according to the ADU.

Iraqi Red Crescent Society (IRCS) officials in Kirkuk maintain that urgent supplies are needed for internally displaced people (IDPs), especially food, tents and drinking water.

"The humanitarian situation in the city is not improving, especially with increasing displacement in the city. Every day we need more supplies and nothing is being done to help those people," an IRCS spokesman, Nuri al- Salihi told IRIN.

They add that a solution needs to be found quickly to prevent further conflict in the city, as well as health problems that could affect children, such as malnutrition and water-borne diseases.

Other organisations reported a shortage of supplies.

"We are ready to help our brothers, but we don't have any supplies and every day the needs in the city are increasing," Nuri al-Salihi, a spokesman for a local NGO in Kirkuk, Human Rights Organisation (HRO), told IRIN.

In addition, sewage and water treatment in the city are not working well and waste is overflowing in the streets, posing a health hazard, Yetcci Subhi, a volunteer in the Kurdistan Peace Organisation (KPO), told IRIN.

Officials at the Ministry of Displacement and Migration (MoDM) told IRIN in Baghdad that with the establishment of the new government and continuing security problems, there have been difficulties sending relief supplies to the area.

MINORITY COMMUNITY FEARS

Long before the Arabisation process started, the Turkomen people made up the majority of the population in Kirkuk, when it was part of the Ottoman Empire.

Numbers have fallen over the years due to the influx of Kurds from the north and then the Arabisation process, which forced both Turkomen and Kurds out of the city.

US State Department statistics from 2004 show that Turkomen people along with Christians, Assyrians and other smaller religious and ethnic groups make up just five percent of Iraq's population today.

There are no accurate figures on how many are now in Kirkuk, but estimates suggest they currently represent 20 percent of the population in the city.

The majority of Iraq's Turkomen community are now based in the northern region between the cities of Tal Afar and Mandily and in northern Baghdad.

The community has been caught in the middle of population movements and having already been discriminated against during Saddam's regime, they fear that their situation will not change.

The Turkomen are descendants of the Turkik-speaking Oguz tribes from Central Asia and historically formed a cultural barrier between the Arabs in the south and the Kurds in the north.

Jinan Saluci, a member the Turkomen Shi'ite Council (TSC), told IRIN that many families from the community had started to leave Kirkuk, saying that the city had now effectively become part of the Kurdish north. He added that there are no accurate statistics on how many have left so far.

"I'm leaving the city and moving to the capital as I cannot continue to see our origin being given away so easily to Kurds. They will soon have total power inside Kirkuk and we will be discriminated against, just as Saddam did with us," a Turkomen father of five, Ziad al-Muktar, told IRIN.

With Talabani in place, tension between Arabs, Kurds and Turkomen people could intensify in the oil-rich city, the TNF claimed.

"They [Kurds] knew what to do and put us out from any important place in the government as a way of controlling decisions over Kirkuk's future. They are just making more Turkomen and Arabs leave without any kind of humanitarian attitude," Sungul Chapuk, a Turkomen member of the new national assembly, told IRIN.

EFFORTS TO RESOLVE LAND DISPUTE

In an effort to resolve land disputes between Arabs and Kurds in the city, the government has established the Iraqi Property Claims Commission (IPCC), which started accepting claims in June 2004.

Youssef Ahmed, a senior official at the IPCC, told IRIN that nearly 39,000 claims had been registered in the office, but less than 420 decisions have been made so far, most of them giving Kurds the right to return and reclaim property and businesses turned over to Arab Iraqis in Saddam's days. But whether newly-displaced Arab residents of the city will receive any official compensation remains unclear.

"As an official, I cannot judge the government but I believe that something is going wrong here. Before you give the right to someone to return, you should offer the minimum living standards to the ones you are displacing and not follow the same step that was taken by Saddam's regime," Ahmed said, implying that two wrongs do not make a right.

Hilterman from the ICG stressed that urgent action is needed. He said that the interim government needs to halt the return of displaced Kurds to Kirkuk, allowing them to go back only if the IPCC has already ruled that they may do so to re-occupy the property they are claiming as their own.