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The ethnic cleansing has begun in Iraq.

by Washington Post Foreign Service Monday, Apr. 14, 2003 at 6:08 PM

Ms. Muhammad and her trembling infant are victims of a new wave of intimidation and crime in northern Iraq. They are among thousands of Arabs expelled from their homes by armed Kurds — among the United States' most exuberant allies in this war — and ordered to move away within three days.

April 14, 2003

Groups of Kurds Are Driving Arabs From Northern Villages


AAD BIN ABI WAQAS, Iraq, April 13 — Two Arab mothers and their children sat forlornly in a semicircle in the dirt, one household among scattered families living in the open on the outskirts of this agricultural village south of Kirkuk.

Before them on dirty cushions were a pair of tiny, wheezing infants; one was 24 days old, the other 35 days. Both looked ill. Shiya Juma Muhammad, the mother of the younger baby, pleaded for help. "We need food," she said. "We need medical service. We need security. We need to go home."

Ms. Muhammad and her trembling infant are victims of a new wave of intimidation and crime in northern Iraq. They are among thousands of Arabs expelled from their homes by armed Kurds — among the United States' most exuberant allies in this war — and ordered to move away within three days.

Forced expulsion had long been a tool of the Iraqi government. Since the late 1960's, Saddam Hussein's Baath Party relocated huge segments of Iraq's population from place to place, either to suppress uprisings or to skew demographics near oil fields in favor of the ruling Arab class.

Now, days after seizing control of Kirkuk, an ethnically diverse city located astride Iraq's northern oil field, Kurds are forcing Arabs in outlying villages to move from their homes, leaving entire hamlets nearly abandoned and crowding some families into wheat fields that have become hastily erected camps.

For decades, Kurds have complained of abuses against them, including intimidation, expulsions and property seizures. Now, the newly prominent Kurds are indulging in some of Mr. Hussein's abuses themselves.

The intimidation appears widespread, and suggests problems for the United States' postwar plans in Iraq, and for efforts to improve relations with Arabs suspicious of American intentions.

The rush of intimidation and thievery dismayed senior Kurdish officials today, who said the crimes were not a matter of policy, but the work of freelance looters or low-ranking Kurdish party officials who would soon be brought into check.

"The mistakes of Saddam, we are repeating them," said Sheik Abdul Karim Hajji, a member of parliament in the Kurdish autonomous zone who has been trying to ease relations among ethnic groups in and around Kirkuk. "We are against, absolutely against, what has happened."

Yet one local official for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or P.U.K., the dominant armed Kurdish party near Kirkuk, suggested that a policy of expelling Arabs had the approval of the United States.

The official, Salam Kakai, deputy leader of the Patriotic Union's office in Daquq, which has been issuing signed orders of expulsions to Arab Bedouins in this village, said the same people who had defeated the Iraqi Army had ordered Arabs to relocate.

It is a message radically different from the one Washington had been hoping would reach Arab ears. "We have an order that the people should go back to their original places, from the P.U.K. leaders, and from the coalition," he said. "We carry out orders."

Senior Patriotic Union officials said tonight that no order for expulsions had been issued, and such an order would contradict the stance by Jalal Talabani, the Patriotic Union's general secretary, who has publicly advocated a tolerant, multiethnic Iraq.

Mr. Talabani's position faces a difficult history. Kurds have been expelled from Kirkuk and the surrounding villages for at least 35 years, and replaced in many cases by Arabs who were forced to move by the Baath Party or lured to formerly Kurdish neighborhoods with subsidized housing.

In many cases, Arabs now live in homes seized from Kurds years ago. A central component of the Kurdish resistance to Mr. Hussein was a commitment to the freedom of Kirkuk and the restoration of traditional property to Kurds.

Shalaw Ali Askari, a veteran guerrilla and an envoy whom Mr. Talabani sent to try to improve relations in and around Kirkuk, said problems stemmed from lawlessness, not from any decision by the party's leadership.

He said he would try to meet tribal leaders on Monday to assure them that Arabs could remain in their homes, at least for now.

Mr. Askari also said land claims would be handled in a lawful manner, perhaps by trials, after Iraq settled down after the war. "People have waited more than 30 years for this time," he said. "They can be patient. What is one more year?"

This village is one of five south of Kirkuk where residents have been notified by the Patriotic Union's office in Daquq to vacate their homes by Monday. On a tour today to the area, researchers for Human Rights Watch, an independent group, said they found credible accounts of 2,000 people who had already been displaced from the area.

A senior Kurdish official also said tonight there had been reports of rapes committed by looters or vandals in another village. The official said the reports had not yet been confirmed and were being investigated.

Journalists have also seen several emptied Arab villages on the road that runs northwest from Kirkuk to Maqmur, and more on another highway heading south.

In the villages, the unrest has the feel of an opportunity lost. Many of the Bedouin said they had supported the removal of Mr. Hussein.

"Saddam," said Muhammad Muzir Shahim, standing with other men in this village when three Western journalists and the Human Rights Watch team arrived. "Hitler No. 2."

But Arabs facing expulsion complained bitterly today that the United States had not moved quickly enough to provide civil authority. The delay, they said, has allowed entire Arab villages to be looted and vandalized.

It was not clear that armed groups could be kept in check any time soon without more security on roads outside of the city. Arabs who visited Kirkuk today saw American soldiers and American tanks; they also noticed that none had ventured south yet, to take up a mission in this lawless land.

"We were in one prison with Saddam, and we are in another prison now," Mr. Shahim said. "We need the freedom and independence and security America was talking about. Why are they not here?"

Around him, in several directions, were villages nearly emptied, including Muntasir, where the houses have been ransacked.

Each door opened to a scene suggesting unchecked theft and rage. Stray pieces of remaining furniture were flipped and shattered. Mirrors were in shards on floors, chickens wandered about and rooms lay empty.

In one house, family pictures remained on a wall. "Kurds destroyed this," said Shakir Jindar, an Arab standing in the light by the door. An oil fire flashed and burned on the horizon behind him.

Beside Mr. Jindar, the outer walls of several houses had been uniformly painted with new names, in yellow, apparently of Kurds who intend to move in and assert what they regard as their historic land claim.

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