Kurds Advancing to Reclaim Land
Thousands of ethnic Kurds are pushing into lands formerly held by Iraqi Arabs, forcing tens of thousands of them to flee to ramshackle refugee camps and transforming the demographic and political map of northern Iraq. The Kurds are returning to lands from which they were expelled by the armies of Saddam Hussein and his predecessors in the Baath Party, who ordered thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed and sent waves of Iraqi Arabs north to fill the area with supporters. The new movement, which began with the fall of Mr. Hussein, appears to have quickened this spring amid confusion about American policy, along with political pressure by Kurdish leaders to resettle the areas formerly held by Arabs. It is happening at a moment when Kurds are threatening to withdraw from the national government if they are not confident of having sufficient autonomy.
In Baghdad, American officials say they are struggling to keep the displaced Kurds on the north side of the Green Line, the boundary of the Kurdish autonomous region. The Americans agree that the Kurds deserve to return to their ancestral lands, but they want an orderly migration to avoid ethnic strife and political instability. But thousands of Kurds appear to be ignoring the American orders. New Kurdish families show up every day at the camps that mark the landscape here, settling into tents and tumble-down homes as they wait to reclaim their former lands. The Kurdish migration appears to be causing widespread misery, with Arabs complaining of expulsions and even murders at the hands of Kurdish returnees. Many of the Kurdish refugees themselves are gathered in crowded camps.
American officials say as many as 100,000 Arabs have fled their homes in north-central Iraq and are now scattered in squalid camps across the center of the country. With the anti-American insurgency raging across much of the same area, the Arab refugees appear to be receiving neither food nor shelter from the Iraqi government, relief organizations or American forces.
“The Kurds, they laughed at us, they threw tomatoes at us,” said Karim Qadam, a 45-year-old father of three, now living amid the rubble of a blown-up building in Baquba, northeast of Baghdad. “They told us to get out of our homes. They told us they would kill us. They told us, `You don’t own anything here anymore.’ ”
Ten years ago, Mr. Qadam said, Iraqi officials forced him to turn over his home in the southern city of Diwaniya and move north to the formerly Kurdish village of Khanaqaan, where he received a free parcel of farmland. Now, like the thousands of Arabs encamped in the parched plains northeast of Baghdad, Mr. Qadam, his wife and three children have no home to return to.
This is hardly surprising. Indeed, we saw something very much like this after the liberation of Kosovo. Still, it’s an unhelpful distraction in our attempt to stabilize and democratize Iraq–especially the former.