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Displaced Iraqi Kurds, Wary Arabs Seek Justice

An international agency will begin dealing with those who lost their homes under Saddam Hussein, and those who replaced them.

August 03, 2003|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

KIRKUK, Iraq — From his makeshift home in the bowels of a soccer stadium here, Bahktiar Mohammed gazes with raw resentment toward the middle-class, mostly Arab neighborhood across a debris-strewn lot where sheep gnaw at scraps of green.

"If someone doesn't do something for us soon, we may cause some trouble over there," warns Mohammed, one of more than 400 Kurdish refugees camping out beneath the stadium stairwells and grandstands.

Inside the Mansour neighborhood where Mohammed fixes his angry stare, Hadi Mahseen says he has no intention of giving up the home where he has lived for more than two decades. "This is not Kurdish territory," declares Mahseen, an Arab oil worker. "This is Iraq. We will not leave for anyone."

The clashing perspectives encapsulate one of the new Iraq's thorniest dilemmas: how to do justice for hundreds of thousands of people thrown out of their homes during the rule of Saddam Hussein.

In coming weeks, a multinational body -- the International Office of Migration, based in Geneva -- will begin dealing with the difficult question. The IOM, whose membership includes more than 100 nations, including the United States, will start setting up offices to handle claims from people who say they were wrongly expelled during the Hussein era.

Many are Kurds forced from their villages as part of Hussein's notorious "Arabization" movement, designed largely to install an Arab majority in this oil-producing northern region. Separate offices in Baghdad, Basra and elsewhere will handle claims from other displaced peoples, including so-called Marsh Arabs in the south, brutally suppressed by Hussein after the Persian Gulf War of 1991. Arabs who say Kurds recently forced them from their homes, or who fled in fear of retribution as the Hussein government fell, are also expected to come forward.

"This could be the largest and most complex such process ever," says Norbert Wuehler, who is directing the effort from the IOM's offices in Irbil, a largely Kurdish city north of here.

By some estimates, as many as 800,000 people may have been forced out of their homes during the Hussein years. But officials concede that the numbers are guesses at best.

"We really don't have any idea how many people were affected, or how many will come forward," said Wuehler, a German who is a leading international authority on such claims.

The United Nations and other international bodies in recent decades have set up various commissions to handle post-conflict property disputes, including claims arising from World War II, the Balkans war and the 1991 war in the Gulf. But factors unique to postwar Iraq -- including its lack of a central government and the vast sweep of Hussein's ethnic-engineering operations -- have created a monumental challenge.

"It's a very complex and delicate situation," acknowledged William Eagleton, a longtime U.S. diplomat who headed an international study group examining the issue. "Resolving it is going to take time."

U.S. authorities were keen to have some kind of an international body overseeing the effort, officials say. That's how the IOM came into the picture.

The IOM, which often works closely with the United Nations, initially grew out of the refugee crisis in Europe after World War II and has had extensive experience with the Kurds. The IOM, funded by donations from the United States and other member nations, helped resettle hundreds of thousands of displaced Kurds after the 1991 Gulf War.

Distrust and suspicion are already clouding the effort, especially here in northern Iraq, where many Arabs fear Kurdish score-settling after decades of Kurdish torment at the hands of Hussein. The fact that the Kurds are widely seen as allies of the U.S. occupation forces -- and, indeed, accompanied the U.S. airborne troops into this city in April -- have only abetted the fears of Arabs and other non-Kurds.

On July 6, someone fired a rocket-propelled grenade through a wall of the IOM's compound in Mosul, blasting a hole in the outer wall and sending shrapnel flying through two parked agency vehicles. No one was hurt, but the shot left its intended message.

Leaflets were later discovered linking the agency to Jewish property speculation -- one of several rumors of Jewish profiteering that have added fuel to the already incendiary panorama of postwar Iraq.

"It's all a bit disconcerting," conceded one staffer working on the issue of displaced people here.

Last month, two cars marked as IOM vehicles and carrying IOM staffers were ambushed near the southern city of Hillah, killing a driver and injuring three others.

The atmosphere here in multiethnic Kirkuk is far from calm. Resentments among its various inhabitants -- Kurds, Arabs, ethnic Turks -- simmer just below the surface. The non-Kurdish groups, in particular, fear losing out in the new, U.S.-administered region, a worry that both U.S. authorities and the U.S.-backed Kurdish governor of the township have attempted to defuse.

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