Kurds Advancing to Reclaim Land in Northern Iraq

By DEXTER FILKINS

The New York Times

Published: June 20, 2004

MAKHMUR, Iraq, June 17 - 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 Kurdish officials are threatening to pull out of the national government if they cannot maintain enough 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 many Kurds appear to be ignoring the American orders. New Kurdish families show up every day at 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 human misery, with Arab settlers complaining of forceful expulsions and even murders at the hands of Kurdish returnees. Many of the Kurdish refugees themselves are gathered in crowed and filthy refugee 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 Iraqi city of Diwaniya and move north to Khanaqaan, where he received a free parcel of rich farmland free. Now, like the thousands of Arabs encamped in the parched plains northeast of Baghdad, Mr. Qadam, his wife and three young children have no home to return to.

The push by the Kurds into the formerly Arab-held lands, while driven by the returnees themselves, appears to be backed by the Kurdish government, which has long advocated a resettlement of the disputed area. Despite an explicit prohibition in the Iraqi interim constitution, Kurdish officials are setting up offices and exercising governmental authority in the newly settled areas.

The shift in population is raising fears in Iraq that the Kurds are trying to expand their control over Iraqi territory at the same time they are suggesting that they may pull out of the Iraqi government.

American officials say they are trying to fed off pressure from Kurdish leaders to move their people back into the area.

"There is a lot of pressure in the Kurdish political context to bring the people who were forced out back into their hometowns and villages," said a senior official with the Coalition Provisional Authority. "What we have tried to do so far, through moral suasion, is to get the Kurds to recognize that if they put too much pressure on Kirkuk and other places south of the Green Line, they could spark regional and national instability."

But local occupation officials appear in some areas to have tacitly accepted the flow of Kurdish people back into their homes. According to minutes of a recent meeting of occupation officials and relief workers in the northern city of Erbil, an American official announced that the Americans would no longer oppose Kurds' crossing the Green Line, as long as the areas they were moving into were uncontested.

And Kurdish and American officials in the area say the occupation authority has been financing projects here in Makhmur, a formerly Arab area recently resettled by Kurdish refugees.