October 2, 2004


THE NEXT IRAQI WAR: What Kirkuk’s struggle to reverse Saddam’s ethnic cleansing signals for the future of Iraq (GEORGE PACKER, 2004-10-04, The New Yorker)

Kirkuk sits near the foothills of the Zagros Mountains, not far from the southern border of Kurdistan, an autonomous region that broke free of Baathist control in 1991. The vast oil fields outside the city constitute around seven per cent of Iraq’s total reserves. In part, the Arabization program was aimed at securing Baghdad’s authority over this valuable resource, but primarily Saddam’s regime was motivated by ideology. The history and demography of Kirkuk were an affront to the fascist dreams of the Baath Arab Socialist Party. Kirkuk is a dense, cosmopolitan city along a trade route between Constantinople and Persia, and its layers of successive civilizations had nothing to do with Arab glory. Around the city’s markets and the citadel, residents still live and move in close quarters, and a visitor finds the variety of faces, tolerant manners, public female presence, and polyglot street life of a mixed city. Kirkuk feels closer to Istanbul than to Baghdad.

One local historian, an elderly Arab named Yasin Ali al-Hussein, told me that Kirkuk was built by Jewish slaves of the Babylonian captivity; although scholars doubt this version, until the creation of Israel, in 1948, several thousand Jews lived in the city’s twisted back streets, many of them near the old souk at the foot of the citadel. An Armenian church dates from the first millennium. (Christians make up roughly five per cent of the population.) In the fourth century B.C., Xenophon noted the presence of an ethnic group that might have been Kurdish. Turkomans from Central Asia, ethnically distinct from Turks, migrated to the region about a thousand years ago. During Ottoman rule, which was established at the citadel in the sixteenth century and lasted until the arrival of British troops, during the First World War, many educated Turkomans became imperial officeholders. More than a century ago, Arab immigrants began settling around Kirkuk, mostly in the farmland west and south of the city; these “original Arabs” are distinct in almost every way from those imported by the Baathist regime. E. B. Soane, a British intelligence officer who travelled through Mesopotamia in the years before the First World War, observed, “Kirkuk is thus a collection of all the races of eastern Turkey—Jew, Arab, Syrian, Armenian, Chaldean, Turk, Turkoman, and Kurd—and consequently enjoys considerable freedom from fanaticism.”

Fanaticism is the legacy of Saddam’s Arabization policy. Every aspect of Kirkuk’s history is now violently contested. Kurds, Arabs, and Turkomans all make claims of ethnic primacy in a city where there are only pluralities. (According to the 1957 census, conducted before Arabization began, the city was forty per cent Turkoman and thirty-five per cent Kurdish.) Ali Bayatli, a Turkoman lawyer, insisted that his people were direct descendants of the Sumerians and therefore the first residents of Kirkuk, with unspecified rights. Kurdish politicians have two slogans designed to end any argument: “Kirkuk is the heart of Kurdistan” and “Kirkuk is the Jerusalem of the Kurds.” Arabs, meanwhile, are angry about the sudden loss of power that followed the removal of Saddam. Luna Dawood’s view of her city’s future is grim. “It will be war till the end,” she said. “Everyone says Kirkuk belongs to us: Arabs, Kurds, Turkomans. To whom will it belong? We want America to stay here and change minds—to teach what’s freedom, what’s human. That’s what our people don’t know. They are animals.”

Fifteen miles outside the city, on a road heading northwest, I met Muhammad Khader, a Kurdish farmer who was hoeing a vegetable garden next to a cluster of ruined-looking houses. Khader had recently returned to the area from Erbil, a city in Kurdistan, where he worked as a butcher. After the American invasion, he and his two wives, their ten children, and twenty-five other families followed American and Kurdish soldiers south into Iraq, with the goal of reclaiming Amshaw, their ancestral village, from Arab settlers. Khader, who wore traditional Kurdish pants, which are drawn tight at the waist and ankles but hang loose around the legs, took me up into the surrounding hills. It was spring, and the vivid green grass was studded with yellow wildflowers and blood-red roses, which are tragic emblems in Kurdish poetry.

“This was the village,” Khader said, pointing at a pattern of grassy humps on the hillside. Shards of terra-cotta pottery lay in the dirt. “That was our house,” he went on. “Exactly here.” Farther up the hill, a field of jagged headstones marked the village cemetery.

In 1961, the first phase of a long war between Iraq’s central government and Kurdish guerrillas, known as peshmerga, began. The rebel Kurds demanded linguistic and cultural rights, control over regional security and financial affairs, and authority over Kirkuk and its oil. In 1963, following the coup that first brought Baathists to power, Iraqi soldiers attacked Amshaw and other villages. Khader was three years old. “I remember it like a dream, a bad dream, with children crying and people fighting and dying,” he said. The villagers fled north, and were forced to retreat all the way to Erbil. Amshaw was razed. In the ensuing years, the lands around Amshaw were distributed to Arab tribes from the south, and new houses were built for Arab settlers.

I asked Khader if his family was ever compensated for their loss.

“Are you making fun of me?” he said, staring in disbelief. “They took everything. You see how I am now? That’s just how we left—no blankets, nothing.”

Sabiha Hamood and her husband are Arabs who moved their family to Kirkuk from Baghdad in the late nineteen-eighties, lured by a free house and ten thousand dinars. “Arabs like us are known as the benefitters,” Hamood said. “We came here just to live in a house. My husband used to work in the Ministry of Housing, but it wasn’t enough money to buy a house.” Like Hamood, the overwhelming majority of the benefitters are Shia, and many were employed in the military, the state security apparatus, or the civil service. The house offered to Hamood’s family was in a middle-class Turkoman neighborhood called Taseen, across the road from the Kirkuk airbase. Hamood convinced herself that the former owner of her house had been handsomely compensated and bore no grudge.

Several doors down is a two-story house that once belonged to the family of Fakheraldin Akbar, a Turkoman woman who works with Luna Dawood in the finance department. One day in 1988, the family received a government letter declaring that a railroad was going to be built through the neighborhood. “They gave us three days,” Akbar recalled. “On the second day, policemen were standing outside the door. We took our furniture and went to stay with an aunt who lived along the road to Baghdad.” The family was awarded a sum that represented less than a quarter of the value of the house. The railroad was never built. Four or five years ago, attending a funeral in her old neighborhood, Akbar decided to go and look at the house for the first time since the family’s eviction. “I said to myself, ‘Let me just walk past the door. I won’t speak to them—why should I? I don’t know them, they don’t know me.’” The benefitters who were given the house had painted over its beautiful wooden front door.

Ethnic cleansing in Kirkuk proceeded in piecemeal fashion, but the Baathists were following a master plan. Their goal was to make Kirkuk a predominantly Arab city, with a security belt of Arab neighborhoods encircling it, especially along the vulnerable northern and eastern edges, which faced Kurdistan. Accordingly, Kurds were forbidden by law to build, buy, or improve houses in Kirkuk. Any Kurdish family that couldn’t prove residence in Kirkuk from the 1957 census had no legal right to live there, which meant that thousands of Kurds were displaced to refugee camps in Kurdistan or to southern Iraq. Some were given a choice: leave the city or become an Arab. This was called “correcting” one’s nationality, and thousands of Kurds and Turkomans agreed to undergo the humiliation in order to stay in Kirkuk or hold on to a job or obtain a business license. Meanwhile, one Kurdish neighborhood after another was torn down—allegedly, to widen a road, build a munitions factory, expand a base. After 1980, the teaching of languages other than Arabic was forbidden in city schools. Kurds and other non-Arabs were frozen out of government jobs; before the war, according to one Kurdish official, the oil company had eleven thousand employees, of whom eighteen were Kurds.

Development in Kirkuk was allowed in only one direction: south, toward Baghdad. The Arabization neighborhoods that arose have the lethargic feel of an overgrown village, where women are shrouded in black body-covering abayas; the new buildings were thrown up in graceless concrete along wide, empty streets. The few Kurdish and Turkoman neighborhoods in the center of town that survived demolition became choked with traffic and were deprived of parks, sewers, and public transportation. Over the years, ten or twelve families packed into dilapidated compounds that had been built for two or three families. The dried-up riverbed filled with garbage.

The climax of the regime’s persecution of Kurds came in 1988, when the decimation of Kurdish villages in Iraq’s northern mountains reached genocidal proportions and chemical weapons were used against civilians in Halabja. Toward the end of that year, the governor of Kirkuk wrote a letter to the Baathist official in charge of Arabization, Taha Yasin Ramadan, who, in addition to being a lifelong friend of Saddam’s, is a Kurd. (Iraqis know him simply as “the Butcher.”) This letter, which was among the documents that Luna Dawood salvaged, offers a report on an intensive phase of the ethnic-cleansing campaign in Kirkuk, from June 1, 1985, to October 31, 1988. “We would like to inform you that we have followed the strict orders and instructions that you made for our work, which pushed us to work harder to serve the citizens, the sons of the courageous leader of victory and peace, Mr. President the Patriot Saddam Hussein (may God save him),” the governor wrote. What follows is a detailed statistical account: 19,146 people removed from villages “forbidden for security reasons”; registration documents of 96,533 people transferred from Kirkuk to Erbil province in preparation for removal; 2,405 families removed from villages lying near oil facilities; 10,918 Arab families, including 53,834 people, transferred to Kirkuk from other provinces; 8,250 pieces of residential land and 1,112 houses distributed to Arab families transferred from other provinces. The letter noted that these removals, transfers, and distributions created a net gain of 51,862 Arabs in the province and a net loss of 18,096 Kurds during this period, making Arabs the largest group in Kirkuk for the first time. The final phase of Arabization was beginning, the governor reported in conclusion: “The displacement process from the city center is now taking its course.”

Two years later, just before the invasion of Kuwait, Saddam made his announcement outside Kirkuk’s municipal building that all human life be removed from the citadel. According to Gha’ab Fadhel, the director of Kirkuk’s archeological museum, who oversaw the bulldozing of dwellings, the purpose of the citadel project was simply to excavate and restore ancient monuments. The eight hundred and fifty Ottoman-era houses on the site were ill kept, unhygienically crowded, and mostly occupied by poor renters. “Their removal had nothing to do with politics,” he insisted. But the citadel was the heart of the city. On the Muslim holiday of Eid, Christians joined Muslims to celebrate at the Tomb of the Prophets, an ancient shrine where Daniel and Ezra are apocryphally said to be buried. On Christian holidays, the Muslims reciprocated.

At the souk near the citadel, the Turkoman owner of a women’s dress shop recalled that, years ago, the citadel was the site of many feasts. In the quiet of summer evenings, he said, the scent of grilled meat would drift down into the market. “From what I hear, Turkomans were living there,” he said.

“Why do you say that?” a Kurdish customer asked. “We were living there, too.”

Across the alley from the shop, a Turkoman woman selling shoes and purses told me, “We were the last family to leave the citadel.” Her father, a wealthy trader in seeds, had a large house by the western gate that overlooked the river. He built houses on the citadel for Jews whom he employed as scribes. “We had relations with so many people on the citadel,” she said. “Like family, not neighbors.” One day, Baathists knocked at the door: the family had a month in which to vacate their house. “The citadel was the most beautiful place,” she said. “My childhood was there. I see it every day.” She pointed to the remains of a stone wall, overgrown with yellow grass, just visible above the shops across the alley.

The last houses inside the citadel were destroyed in 1998. By then, nobody had lived there for eight years, and no one was allowed there except members of a Republican Guard unit, who were positioned on the citadel to suppress an uprising or attack. Last year, when a wave of Kurdish peshmerga and American Special Forces soldiers swept down from the north, the dream of Arab Kirkuk collapsed overnight. [...]

In Kirkuk, the Arab-Kurdish conflict has been intensified by the insurgency against the Iraqi government, which has recently grown worse: in the past few weeks, two car bombings in Kirkuk have killed at least forty people. The Kurds are often considered collaborators of the Americans, while many of the imported Arabs sympathize with the Sunni or Shiite resistance forces. Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric, has claimed that the Kurds are Muslim apostates and face damnation; over the summer, several hundred Kurds fled to Kirkuk from Samarra and other Arab cities after being denounced in Sunni mosques as traitors. The Arab men in the cinder-block house were followers of Sadr’s representative in Kirkuk, whose mosque was raided in May by American soldiers. (They discovered a cache of weapons and arrested around thirty people.) All vowed to stay in the city. “Kirkuk has turned into a jungle,” Ethir Muhammad said. “If someone comes to force me to leave, then either I’ll kill him or he’ll kill me. This is the law of the jungle.”

Among imported Arabs, I heard various conspiracy stories—that mass graves dug by Saddam’s regime are in fact archeological sites thousands of years old, that the chemical weapons dropped on Halabja were actually sacks of plaster dust. (This theory was offered by a fireman employed by the oil company, whose house in Arrapha looks directly across a field at the former mansion of Ali Hassan al-Majid—known, ever since he directed the gassing of the Kurds, as Chemical Ali.) An Arab woman who is a retired teacher from the southern city of Kut said, “Iraq is part of the Arab nation, not the Kurdish nation. The Kurds are guests in Iraq—and they want to kick the Arabs out?” I seldom heard any acknowledgment of the crimes that Arabs had committed against Kurds in Kirkuk, or any shame at having been the benefitters. This only deepens the sense among Kurds, especially among the deportees who have returned, that it is not possible for them to live alongside imported Arabs in Kirkuk.

The Kurdish plan for Kirkuk is absolutely clear. All the imported Arabs must leave—even those who were born in the city. The government should compensate them, and perhaps find them land and jobs in their provinces of origin, but to allow them to stay in Kirkuk would be to endorse the injustice of Arabization. After Kurdish deportees have been resettled, and the province’s earlier demographic balance has been restored, the Kirkuk region will hold a census. (The 1957 census showed that the population was almost fifty per cent Kurdish.) The result of this upcoming census is a foregone conclusion to the Kurds: they will be the majority group in the province. Equally predictable is the result of the referendum that will follow: the province of Kirkuk will vote to join the autonomous region of Kurdistan, and the city will go with it. [...]

Earlier this year, Kurdish leaders had considerable success in shaping the language of Iraq’s interim constitution, which enshrined the rights of minority groups and envisioned a federalist republic with significant regional autonomy. Over the past few months, however, many Kurds have lost confidence in the effort to create a unified Iraq. They are increasingly alienated from their American allies, who always seem more ready to soothe the recalcitrant Arabs than the dependable Kurds. Several Kurdish politicians told me that a repetition of 1975, when the U.S. withdrew its support for the Kurds and abandoned them to the Baathist regime, now seems entirely possible. In May, the U.S. fuelled such suspicions when it yielded to a demand of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and left out any mention of the interim constitution in the U.N. Security Council resolution that blessed Iraq’s restored sovereignty. When it became clear that Kurds would get neither the Presidency nor the Prime Ministership, Kurdish politicians, including Barham Salih, were so incensed that they briefly withdrew from Baghdad to the north. On June 1st, the two Kurdish leaders, Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, sent a cri de coeur to President Bush that was subsequently made public. “Ever since liberation, we have detected a bias against Kurdistan from the American authorities for reasons that we cannot comprehend,” they wrote, and warned that if the interim constitution “is abrogated, the Kurdistan Regional Government will have no choice but to refrain from participating in the central government and its institutions, not to take part in the national elections, and to bar representatives of the central government from Kurdistan.”

There's no such thing as Iraq and no reason to try and preserve it as a single state. An independent Kurdistan has always been inevitable and should have been officially recognized in 1991. Just cut to the chase and declare it now.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 2, 2004 11:31 PM

Yeah. My position all along.

Why hasn't Bush done it?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 3, 2004 2:21 PM

First you have to see if they want to remain one state--they say they do.

Posted by: oj at October 3, 2004 2:25 PM

D.C. is probably waiting to use this as the 2nd front against Tehran.

Posted by: ratbert at October 3, 2004 3:41 PM

Maybe he's just putting it off, like Sudan, N. Korea etc. etc. because, in the end, he really has no policy?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 6, 2004 1:44 AM

What if Bush's preferred policy is to attack North Korea ?

Whatever we might think of such a strategy, it's clearly one he cannot employ before November.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at October 6, 2004 3:28 AM

Wouldn't affect my vote.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 6, 2004 3:42 PM