The Iraqi government should delay the relocation of Arabs from the northern city of Kirkuk as the move could prompt inter-ethnic tension and violence, analysts say.
On 29 March, the Iraqi cabinet endorsed a decision adopted by a governmental committee to relocate and compensate thousands of Arabs who had moved to Kirkuk, about 250km north of Baghdad, as part of former president Saddam Hussein’s ‘Arabisation’ policy, dating back to the 1980s.
"Any [such] measure should be postponed during this difficult time that the country and Kirkuk are going through," Hafidh al-Jawari, a Kirkuk-based political analyst, said.
Relocating thousands of Arab families who have lived in the area since the 1980s and “turning the city into a Kurdish one overnight will only increase violence between the Kurds on one side and Arabs and Turkomen on the other", al-Jawari added.
There are reportedly about 8,000 Arab families who have indicated their willingness to leave Kirkuk in exchange for a compensation package.
But it is those Arabs who are not willing to leave that could end up in violent clashes with Kurds. “There are some ‘Wafidin’ [Arab settlers who came under the ‘Arabisation’ policy] who refuse to leave under any condition. If they are forced to leave, there would most likely be violence,” Joost Hiltermann, Middle East project director for International Crisis Group (ICG), said.
|I will never leave this city, only my dead body.|
"I didn't steal the house or the land of a Kurd," said Jassim Hassan, a 55-year-old Arab who moved to Kirkuk in 1984 from the southern province of Missan.
"The government gave me a piece of land, which belonged to no one, and helped me to build my house," added Hassan, a father of six and retired teacher. "I will never leave this city, only my dead body.”
Saddam’s ‘Arabisation’ policy
During the 1980s and 1990s, Saddam’s government carried out an ‘Arabisation’ policy by which pro-government Arabs, particularly Shias from the impoverished south, were moved into the region and Kurds were pushed out.
After the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Kirkuk was seen as a ticking time-bomb as many former residents of the city - Kurds and other non-Arabs - streamed back to find their houses had either been sold or given to Arabs from the south.
Over the past few years, many Arabs have been forced by returnees to leave the city, despite Sunni and Shia Arab leaders pleading them not to. This Arab resistance has largely been a result of Kurds seeking to incorporate Kirkuk into their autonomous Kurdistan region. Arabs and Turkomen oppose this.
"We strongly reject any incorporation of Kirkuk into the Kurdistan Regional Government," said Sheik Abdullah al-Obeidi, a member of the Kirkuk’s provincial council and representative of Sunni Arabs.
|We strongly reject any incorporation of Kirkuk into the Kurdistan Regional Government.|
Iraqi Justice Minister Hashim al-Shibli, who heads the committee overseeing talks on Kirkuk's status, said that the return process would be "voluntary" and the decision would be implemented "without coercion".
Those who moved to Kirkuk from other parts of Iraq after July 1968, when Saddam's Ba’ath party took over, would be paid about US $15,000 and given land in their hometowns, if they returned, according to officials.
"Forms will be distributed soon to the Arab residents of Kirkuk to determine who had been part of Saddam's Arabisation campaign," al-Shibli added, without giving specific details on the initiative.
Iraq's constitution calls for a separate referendum on Kirkuk's future by the end of this year. Opponents of the referendum want to put the vote off - concerned about Kurdish dominance and more violence if the referendum is held and the Kurds get the outcome they have been advocating. The relocation of Arab residents from Kirkuk would help the Kurds ensure a majority in favor of incorporating the city into Kurdistan, they say.
Ethnic tensions mount in Kirkuk
Increased violence over Kirkuk land claims
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions