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AFTER THE WAR

Houses Divided in Northern Iraq

Kurds who suffered under Hussein are now reclaiming property, leaving Arabs little choice but to flee the area.

May 03, 2003|Michael Slackman | Times Staff Writer

KHANAQIN, Iraq — For Jaleel Ismael Agha, a Kurd, this is a story about justice and about coming home. More than 15 years ago, Saddam Hussein's regime razed his house, took his herd of cattle, his plow and his mill and forced him to leave his village.

Agha was a victim of Hussein's "Arabization" campaign, a 30-year effort in "ethnic cleansing" that tried to force out Kurds from a swath of historically Kurdish northern Iraq and to bring in Arabs.

Not long after the regime fell, Agha chose a small brick and stucco house on a quiet residential street in this town near the border with Iran. The 51-year-old quickly moved in with his wife and children. "We are enjoying these times," he said, a hardy smile beneath his thick white mustache.

For Mahmoud Salman, an Arab, this is a story about oppression and eviction. Salman is 56, and his is the house that Agha picked. He says Kurdish fighters ordered him to leave. For the first time in his life, he is homeless. He is living with his children and his grandchildren in a dilapidated former Iraqi army barracks an hour and a half from his home -- without water, electricity or furniture.

"We are confused, God help us," Salman said, his voice cracking and his face contorting as he sobbed. "We don't know our future. We don't have bread."

Between Agha and Salman there exists the moral ambiguity that often follows the fall of a repressive regime, in which one group of people, by virtue of ethnicity or affiliation, is able to lord over another. Suddenly, the oppressed becomes the oppressor -- or, at the very least, the victor.

In the northern regions of Iraq, where for decades ethnic Kurds and Turks were terrorized, it is now the Arabs who find themselves under siege, forced out of their homes by the Kurdish fighters known as the peshmerga -- "the ones who face death." Those who have stayed behind are afraid to speak Arabic.

Very few are staying behind.

"If there are some Arabs staying, we ask them why don't they leave," said Mala Bakhtiar, a member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, one of the dominant political parties in the north -- and one that is organizing some of the expulsions.

"This is our right to tell them to return to their original homes," said Bakhtiar, who is functioning as a regional supervisor for towns that once were under Baghdad's control.

A small contingent of U.S. Special Forces soldiers is based in Khanaqin. One of the officers, who asked that he not be identified, said Arabs who dispute Kurd claims to their homes are being taken to a PUK commander for arbitration.

"It's going to take a long time before anybody can straighten this out," the officer said, because the claims are emotionally and legally complex. "You feel for them [the Arabs]. Ninety-nine percent of them were good people who did nothing but follow the rules."

Human Rights Watch, which has documented the expulsions of Arabs in the north, has urged U.S. and Kurdish officials to establish a mechanism to settle the claims over disputed property and other assets.

"U.S. troops must stop the violence," Hania Mufti, London director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, said last month in a news release. "And PUK leaders should take immediate steps to halt any expulsions of Iraqi Arabs from their homes."

Whether Agha or Salman is seen as the aggrieved party, their tit-for-tat tragedy speaks directly to questions about the future of this scared and weary country: Can Iraq heal itself? Can its people come together?

Many of the Shiites in the south, also oppressed by Hussein's Sunni-led regime, are calling for unity while pushing for superiority. That seems to be the dynamic in the north too.

"If you want to be objective, the Arabs harmed us and we suffered a lot because of them," Agha said as he stood outside the metal gate that controls access to his new home. "What happened to us is now happening to them. This is justice."

The house is a squat brick and stucco structure with concrete floors and whitewashed walls. It sits behind a brick wall, with a metal gate that closes off the courtyard where Agha's two small daughters play. There is no furniture, no electricity, no running water.

But to Agha -- and to Salman -- it is his universe.

Shukur Khalif Saud, 35, his wife and three children have left a very similar universe behind. Saud, his extended family and their neighbors -- including Salman -- had been evicted from Khanaqin, run out by the Kurds who had come in from the north to "liberate" the town after Hussein's regime fell.

This was not a case of rousing families from their beds and forcing them to flee in the night. It was more deliberate and systematic. The peshmerga went from house to house to inform Arabs that they had 24 to 48 hours to leave town. For many, that meant abandoning the only homes they had ever known, or leaving behind lives they had spent decades building.

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