Kirkuk: Harbinger of Iraq's future

Down a potholed road, past a cemetery where her ancestors are buried, Farida Said sits on the floor of a darkened tent in the pouring rain, 10 feet from an open latrine.

    Half of Iraq's oil exports flow from Kirkuk

    Farida, a Kurd, was born in Kirkuk as was her father and grandfather. Before being expelled in 1991, she once owned a house here.

    Across the street in a modest home sits Riyadh Hasan, a soft-spoken geography teacher and ethnic Arab who came to Kirkuk in 1978 as part of Saddam Hussein's effort to Arabise the city.

    Both Farida and Riyadh have become political footballs in a highly emotional, sometimes violent contest between Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs, Christians and even foreign states, over who should live in Kirkuk and who should control the oil-rich city from which half of all Iraq's oil exports flow.

    Whether Kirkuk becomes part of Kurdistan or remains part of Iraq may depend largely on who is in the majority - a highly contested and unknown figure.

    At the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the idea that Kirkuk is part of Kurdistan is obvious.

    Iraqi Kurds hold up pictures of
    Massud Barzani, leader of the
    Kurdistan Democratic Party

    "Is Shanghai part of China?" asks Razkar Ali, a PUK representative. "According to all the international historical documents, Kirkuk is a city of Kurdistan."

    To Mustafa Kamal of the Turkman Front, it is just the opposite. "Kirkuk is not a Kurdish city. Kirkuk is historically a Turkman city. Kurds are not the majority of Kirkuk. Turkmen are."

    Ismail Ubudi of the Arabic Group believes Kirkuk is simply an Iraqi city.

    "Kirkuk has never been linked to Kurdistan - it's a special city
    for all ethnicities," he says.

    Even the word Kirkuk is in dispute. Kurds think it is a Kurdish name and Turkmen claim it is Turkman. However, the truth about Kirkuk and its identity lies somewhere in the ambiguities of national feeling, 50 years of manipulated census figures and a legacy of ethnic cleansing.

    Arabisation of Kirkuk

    In the Kurdish ghetto - a homely warren of streets where chickens run and the pavement is considerably more potholed than the Arab side of town, Mutasim Assi Husayn parks his battered taxi. An oil engineer, he worked for the Northern Oil Company until a company security man asked him to change his ethnicity to Arab.

    Three generations from the Turk-
    men community at home in Kirkuk

    "When I refused I lost my job and went to jail," he says smiling good-naturedly.

    Mutasim pulls out an old map of his farm on the outskirts of Kirkuk and title papers dating to 1928. Now, he says, he cannot even visit- about 20 Arab families are farming his property.

    What happened to Mutasim Assi is called "Ta'reeb"- Arabisation - a policy of the former regime to establish an Arab and Iraqi identity for Kirkuk and to keep its massive oil flows out of the hands of Kurds who might one day demand a state.

    Kurds and Turkmen say that starting in the 70's Kurds were not allowed to buy a house in Kirkuk, not allowed to give their children Kurdish or Turkman names, and pressured to change their ethnicity to Arab.

    Non-Arabs were packed off to faraway provinces, their farmlands confiscated and given to Arab families. Yet more Arabs were offered government land and $30,000 to come to Kirkuk and settle down.

    Today no one in Kirkuk knows the real ethnic make-up of the city.

    Turkmen believe they compose 50% of the populace. Arabs think they make up 60%. Most Kurds say their numbers are even higher. The only thing everyone agrees on is that there are no accurate statistics.

    Turkmen believe they compose 50% of the populace. Arabs think they make up 60%. Most Kurds say their numbers are even higher. The only thing everyone agrees on is that there are no accurate statistics.

    Even the director of Kirkuk's census office is a Turkman registered in city records as an Arab. The government offered Adnan Baba a job only if he changed his ethnicity.

    After two decades of scraping by, in 2000 he finally agreed to become Arab. "Then I got a job," he laughs.

    Although he has a century of statistics on the city's ethnic make-up, Baba refuses to give them to anyone. "The numbers are extremely manipulated. If I were to give them out it could cause many problems here."

    A new census is expected in June 2004, and Kirkuk's political actors are moving quickly to shore up their numbers.

    Displaced Kurds

    Huseib Rojbayani harried and chain-smoking has a juggernaut of displaced Kurds and Turkmen waiting to file land claims just on the other side of his door.

    Men from the Turkmen community
    change money in Kirkuk 

    As head of the city's office of resettlement, he believes more
    than 15,000 former residents have returned to the city since April 2003.

    But that, he speculates, is nothing compared to what will follow.

    "I think more than 300,000 people are waiting in Kurdistan to return to Kirkuk. I expect more and more to come, especially in spring," he says.

    Rojbayani believes the major barrier to their return is immigrant Arabs.

    "It will be one part of the resolution of the issue if they left Kirkuk," he says, "They should give their homes to the returnees."

    An Assyrian Castle - one of the
    landmarks of oil-rich Kirkuk

    The suggestion that Arabs leave is explosive, raising fears that Kurdish political parties may be using the misery of displaced residents to re-establish Kirkuk's Kurdish identity, take over the region's oil wealth and further secessionist aims.

    Many Arabs and some Turkmen have sounded a cry of "Takreed" - Kurdification.

    "They left as two people, and then after 12 years they come back as 15," complains Thamir Hasan, an Arab doctor who came to Kirkuk in 1997.

    "This idea is the same as Israel expelling the Palestinians. The Kurds want to expel the Arabs, and this is our country!"

    City officials estimate as many as 300,000 Arabs came to Kirkuk through the Arabisation policy.  Precisely the same number of Kurds and Turkmen they say await return.

    City officials estimate as many as 300,000 Arabs came to Kirkuk through the Arabisation policy.  Precisely the same number of Kurds and Turkmen they say await return.

    Predictably, the numbers are hotly disputed. "75,000 Kurds were expelled from Kirkuk, not more," says Ismail Ubudi of the Arabic group who points out the total population of Kirkuk is only 700,000.

    "There were not more than 5000 and many of them were from outlying villages," says Mustafa Kamal of the Turkman Front, "now they are trying to return to the city center. This is a kind of coup."

    Regional interests

    The "coup" Kamal and Ubudi fear most can be seen in full colour on a wall of Mutasim Ali's family home.

    A map of Greater Kurdistan outlines a state stretching from the oil fields of Kirkuk to the port of Iskenderun on the Turkish Mediterranean, Qamishli in Syria and Kermashan in Iran.

    The map is banned in all four neighbouring countries.

    Kirkuk lit up by flares dropped
    by the US army  

    Kurdish political parties insist such imagery is just a dream. They say they want to be a part of Iraq, that they do not want a Kurdish state and are not interested in Kirkuk for its oil. Many are unconvinced.

    Syria, Iran and Turkey oppose Kirkuk's inclusion in Iraqi Kurdistan, seeing it as a potential step towards independence and an unwelcome beacon of hope to their own Kurdish populations.

    Turkey, which has had a long civil war with its Kurds, also has vital economic ties to Iraq via the Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil pipeline. It does not want to trade its Iraqi oil supplier for a Kurdish one.

    Now some Iraqi Turkmen in Kirkuk are accused of lobbying for Turkey, exaggerating their historic claims to Kirkuk and sowing divisiveness to stop the inclusion of Kirkuk in Kurdistan.

    A new word has entered the Kirkuk lexicon: "Tatreek"- Turkification.

    "We are not Turks, we are Iraqi Turkmen," explains Walid Sharika of the Turkman Brotherhood Party. Turkmen who insist they are a majority in Kirkuk and deny its obvious Kurdish identity are "spies and agents" of a foreign power he says. "We refuse any regional intervention."

    Competing visions

    In 1978, Riyadh Hasan built his house on empty government land on the outskirts of the city. Unlike some Arabs who took farms from Kurds or Turkmen, he says he never took anything from anyone. Thinking he may now be asked to leave, he is simply bewildered.

    "For 25 years I lived in Kirkuk. Now I'm married and I have three kids going through school; 25 years is a long time - I have social relations here with everyone. I have close Kurdish friends - If I think about going back to Baghdad - it's impossible," he says.

    Iraqi Kurds want Kirkuk in a
    future autonomous Kurdish region

    Pondering the long row of tents and illegal homes that have sprung up across the street, Riyadh worries.

    "I've heard those people were given promises by Kurdish political parties that if they came here they would be given our houses. They are just waiting to take our homes."

    Now he says he is being terrorised to get out of Kirkuk by Kurdish gunmen who drive by and fire on his house at night.

    Riyadh wants a federal system based on governorates in which Kirkuk is not ethnically tied to Kurdistan. "I want Kirkuk tied to Baghdad because of the number of nationalities here," says Riyadh, "because everyone wants Kirkuk for himself."

    Across the street Farida Said Ahmad says her camp also has been fired on at night - by Arab gunmen. She wants a Kirkuk tied to Kurdistan.

    "It's our right," she says sitting in her miserable rain-soaked tent. "Why did Saddam Hussein expel us from Kirkuk? To prove that this is an Arab area. For hundreds of years our grandfathers have lived in Kirkuk. This is a Kurdish city."

    SOURCE: Aljazeera


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