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Kurds reclaiming prized territory in Iraq

Kurdish political parties have repatriated thousands of Kurds into the tense oil city of Kirkuk and its surrounding villages, sparking violence between Kurdish settlers and the Arabs who are a minority here, according to U.S. military officials and Iraqi political leaders.
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Providing money, building materials and even schematic drawings, Kurdish political parties have repatriated thousands of Kurds into this tense northern oil city and its surrounding villages, operating outside the framework of Iraq's newly ratified constitution and sparking sporadic violence between Kurdish settlers and the Arabs who are a minority here, according to U.S. military officials and Iraqi political leaders.

The rapidly expanding settlements, composed of two-bedroom cinderblock houses whose dimensions are prescribed by the Kurdish parties, are effectively re-engineering the demography of northern Iraq, enabling the Kurds to add what ultimately may be hundreds of thousands of voters ahead of a planned 2007 referendum on the status of Kirkuk. The Kurds hope to make the city and its vast oil reserves part of an autonomous Kurdistan.

Kurdish political leaders said the repatriations are designed to correct the policies of ousted President Saddam Hussein, who replaced thousands of Kurds in the region with Arabs from the south. The Kurdish parties have seized control of the process, they said, because the Iraqi government has failed to implement an agreement to return Kurdish residents to their homes.

But U.S. military officials, Western diplomats and Arab political leaders have warned the parties that the campaign could work to undermine the nascent constitutional process and raise tensions as displaced Kurds settle onto private lands now held by Arabs.

"If you have everyone participating, it'll be a clean affair and you can accomplish your goals," said Lt. Col. Anthony Wickham, the U.S. military's liaison to the Kirkuk provincial government for the past year. "But don't go behind people's backs, which they have a bad habit of doing," he said, referring to the Kurds. "Does that bring greater stability to Kirkuk? No. It brings pandemonium."

In late August, Arabs shot and killed a Kurdish official who was chalking out settlements in Qoshqayah, a disputed village 24 miles north of Kirkuk. An Iraqi soldier was also killed and six Arabs were wounded in skirmishes with Kurds before U.S. and Iraqi troops restored order, arresting two dozen Arabs and cordoning off the village. Arab residents said it was the latest of several violent incidents between security forces in the area over the past two years.

"Our patience is about to end," said Hussein Ali Hamdani, a 64-year-old Sunni Arab tribal leader. "There are 137 houses in this village now and in each there are at least five" Kurds. "We will protect our land and not abandon it. It's our honor."

"The Arabs will not give up Kirkuk," said Mohammed Khalil, the leader of an Arab bloc within the Kurdish-dominated Kirkuk provincial council. "If America really wants to help Iraq, it will try to stop the Kurds from gaining control over Kirkuk, which would start a civil war."

U.S. military officials said they had sought unsuccessfully to persuade Kurdish political leaders to avoid repatriating Kurds onto private lands, a practice they said had inflamed tensions across the region.

Who's city is it?
Kirkuk, a city of almost 1 million, is home to a combustible mix of multiple ethnicities, a contentious past and enormous potential wealth. Kirkuk's precise demographic makeup is a source of dispute, but Kurds are believed to represent 35 to 40 percent of the population. The remainder is composed primarily of Arabs, ethnic Turkmens and a small percentage of Assyrian Christians.

The Kurds, saying they have a historical claim, hope to anchor Kirkuk to Kurdistan, their semiautonomous region. Kirkuk holds strategic as well as symbolic value: The ocean of oil beneath its surface could be used to drive the economy of an independent Kurdistan, the ultimate goal for many Kurds.

"Kirkuk is part of Kurdistan as Washington D.C. is part of the United States," said Rizgar Ali, president of the Kirkuk provincial council and a top official in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two main Kurdish political parties. The other is the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

With the Kurds firmly in control of the provincial government, Kirkuk already shows signs of a remarkable transition. The names of many streets, buildings, schools and villages have been changed from Arabic to Kurdish. Thousands of Kurds who flooded into Kirkuk after Hussein's fall are still living in a soccer stadium, a city jail and vacant lots. The landscape is replete with ubiquitous gray cinderblocks of the new Kurdish settlements.

The city's fate has been one of the thorniest issues of Iraq's constitutional process. Under Article 136 of the document ratified by Iraqis on Oct. 15, a referendum on the status of Kirkuk will be held in the province no later than Dec. 31, 2007, but only after the Iraqi government takes measures to repatriate former Kurdish residents and resettle Arabs or compensate them. The constitution extended a March 2004 transitional law that assigned responsibility for the repatriations to the federal government.

But throughout Kirkuk and across hundreds of remote farming villages, the Kurdish political parties are doing the job themselves.

In Alu Mahmoud, 20 miles north of Kirkuk, dozens of cinderblock houses are under construction in three subdivisions plotted by Patriotic Union of Kurdistan engineers. Rashaad Sultan, the village leader supervising the project, said the party provides $5,000 to each repatriated family. To ensure that the houses are completed, the money is distributed in installments: $500 to lay the foundation; $2,000 when the walls are erected; $2,500 upon completion.

"Any violation and they have to give the money back," said Sultan, who was born in 1963 as his family fled Alu Mahmoud en route to another village following a bloody attack by Baath Party loyalists.

Inside the house where Sultan is living temporarily, schematic drawings of the new subdivisions are taped to a wall next to a Google Earth satellite image of the village, printed off of a friend's computer. On a desk are files on the 200 families who plan to move into the village and a party directive titled: "Instructions Related to Building Homes for the Resettlement of IDPs," or internally displaced people.

"All houses shall consist of two bedrooms," reads one of the instructions. "Each bedroom shall not be smaller than 3-by-4 meters."

Outside, laborers mixed cement and hammered nails on Sultan's soon-to-be-completed two-story home.

"We're not forcing people to come back, they want to come back," he said. "Look at me: My father was born here. My grandfather was born here."

'Tens of thousands' resettled
Lt. Col. Don Blunck, of Meridian, Idaho, operations officer for the 116th Brigade Combat Team, which has overseen security in Kirkuk since December, said "tens of thousands" of Kurds have resettled in the city and surrounding villages over the past year, many with the help of the parties. Arab and Turkmen politicians said as many as 350,000 Kurds have been relocated into the Kirkuk region since Hussein's fall.

Kurdish officials declined to provide exact numbers, but they said the parties had taken over the repatriations because the Iraqi government had moved too slowly and failed to provide resources to Kurdish families desperate to return to their homes.

The Iraqi Property Claims Commission, the agency charged with the resettlements, has received about 35,500 claims related to Kirkuk, primarily from Kurds, and adjudicated 2,589 cases, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials. But the agency has failed to provide compensation to Kurds seeking to relocate or to Arabs seeking to return to their homes in southern Iraq, as required under the transitional law and the constitution.

"This is what I think: I can sit around with my hand out waiting for the federal government or I can spend the money myself," said Rizgar Ali, the provincial council president and a Patriotic Union of Kurdistan official. Referring to Ibrahim Jafari, Iraq's Shiite Muslim prime minister, he said: "I'm not going to wait around for Jafari to sign a piece of paper. That time is gone, where the central government rules." He added that the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan would spend "every last dollar in the till" to bring Kurds back to Kirkuk.

Kurdish frustration over the government's sluggish progress to resettle Kirkuk surfaced earlier this month when a spokesman for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the party of President Jalal Talabani, called for Jafari's resignation.

Abdul Rahman Mustafa, the Kurdish governor of Kirkuk province, said the central government had failed to help the Kurds with a growing humanitarian crisis. With thousands of people still without access to city services, Mustafa said, "We have been asking the central government to help us, but they haven't. This is this problem: Kids are dying, women and children are dying."

"They're trying to change the demography of Kirkuk," said Tahseem Mohammed Ali, a Turkmen on the council. "I see no problem as long as there are negotiations between the various ethnicities and they go about it in a legitimate way. But they are working now to move people from outside the province and increase the percentages to realize their dream."

"The Kurds are extremists," Ali said. "They make excuses for that. They say that they were oppressed for a long, long time, and they don't want to let that happen again."

The success of the integration of the displaced Kurds appears to vary by village.

Dreams for the future
In Qoshqayah, known to Arabs as Amsha, villagers said tensions emerged shortly after the fall of Hussein's government in April 2003. Kurds flooded into village, aided by the two parties and backed by the pesh merga , the Kurdish militia.

"The Kurdish people are supported by the Kurdish parties, and no one supports the Arabs," complained Hamad Hammoudi Ishaqi, a Sunni Arab from Qoshqayah.

Hammoudi said the Kurds combined intimidation with financial incentives in an effort to persuade the Arabs to vacate the land. Armed groups killed off the Arabs' sheep, he said; many farmers remained in the area but decided to take jobs as taxi drivers in Kirkuk to make ends meet.

In August, said Hussein Ali Hamdani, the Sunni tribal leader, the Kurdish official showed up with officials of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Iraqi security forces. The group was marking off plots for new Kurdish settlements when one of the Kurds swore at a group of Arab women who were trying to stop them, Hamdani said.

Hamdani said a group of Arab men then attacked the Kurds, killing the agricultural official and a soldier. U.S. military officials said that after American and Iraqi troops restored order, the Kurdish parties halted plans for further building in the village.

The process has proceeded more smoothly in Alu Mahmoud, a few miles down the road from Qoshqayah. After several returning Kurds threatened violence, Sultan, the village chief, said many Arabs agreed to leave peacefully in exchange for compensation from various Kurdish sources. They received between a few hundred and several thousand dollars for their houses, some of which were once occupied by Baath Party leaders.

One recent afternoon, on a plot just off the dirt road leading into the village, dozens of men worked quietly on their modest cinderblock dwellings, which were in various states of completion.

Ibrahim Khalel, 34, offered a tour of the home he plans to share with his wife, Joana Ali, and their 4-year-old son Abdullah. With 3,000 cinderblocks, the gray foundation and walls had been completed. Khalel had received $2,500. "This is our bedroom," he said, walking through the roofless home with a hammer looped through his belt. "This is where the bathroom will go."

In 1987, Khalel fled to Ramadi, a city about 200 miles south of Kirkuk, after the government ordered him out of the village. He returned a few months ago. He said he considered himself in Kurdistan, whether or not he was technically within its borders.

"I've come back to my homeland," he said.