Ethnic Divide in Iraqi City a Test for Nation

Sudarsan Raghavan, Washington Post, December 20, 2008

Darawan Salahadin, dressed in a black shirt and blue jeans, strolled out of his home in the Kurdish part of his ethnically fragmented neighborhood, passing concrete barriers and a checkpoint guarded by a Kurdish fighter. He entered the Arab section and walked swiftly to his tan, flat-roofed school.

In the classrooms were only Kurdish students. The Arabs would arrive as Kurds left, and then the Turkmen students would get their turn. The school has three names, one in each community’s language, and three sets of teachers and principals.

“I have no Arab and Turkmen friends. I have only Kurdish friends,” said Salahadin, a slim 17-year-old with thick, gelled black hair. “I can’t speak Arabic or Turkmen. So I don’t know them.”

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In contrast to security improvements elsewhere in the country, Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen residents of Kirkuk remain targets of political violence as their leaders vie for control of what they see as their ancestral lands. Last week, at least 57 people died in a suicide bombing on the outskirts of the city, the deadliest assault in Iraq in six months.

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Kurdish political parties, citing historical claims to the city, want to expand their autonomous region in northern Iraq to include it. Iraq’s predominantly Arab central government opposes Kurdish control over Kirkuk, whose oil fields produce 40 percent of Iraq’s output, as does Kirkuk’s minority Turkmen community and its backers in Turkey.

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Even the name of Salahadin’s neighborhood is contested. Arab and Turkmen residents call it Hay al-Wasiti, as it was known before the 2003 U.S-led invasion of Iraq. The Kurds have renamed it Nowruz, after the Kurdish New Year.

Politics infuses virtually every discussion in this neighborhood—a sprawling jumble of houses, shops and mosques connected by dusty, unpaved roads in the southern part of Kirkuk. About 120 Kurdish families are clustered inside sand berms, blast walls and checkpoints. Arab and Turkmen houses surround them.

For decades, Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens mingled freely, intermarried and ran businesses together. Today, the communities rarely mix.

The separation is not just physical. In geography class, Salahadin learns that Kirkuk is a part of Kurdistan, as Kurds refer to their autonomous region and, more broadly, the independent state they have never had. His favorite subject is Kurdish because, he said, “it is our language,” and he studies ancient Kurdish cities and Kurdish heroes.

When he and other Kurdish students leave the school, as the Arabs enter, they greet each other by saying, “Salaam”—peace. Then they part ways.

For Arabs, Fear and Doubt

On Nov. 24, across the road from Hay al-Wasiti, a red pickup truck waited over a splatter of fresh blood for a final journey. Forty minutes had passed since a gunman had pumped a single bullet into the head of Khalaf Hamoud al-Jubouri, an Arab lawyer, as he pulled out of his driveway. His daughter found him slumped over the steering wheel.

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“Damn the Kurds,” screamed one of Jubouri’s sons. “I know it was the Kurds who killed my father.”

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Many Arabs in the neighborhood have moved to Arab areas or to their villages. This year alone, Jubouri has rented out 20 Arab houses, mostly to Turkmens displaced from Kurdish areas.

Kurds hold senior posts in the police, dominate the city council and have U.S. allies. “If we complain, the Kurds go to the Americans and tell them that those Arabs are terrorists. And Americans come and arrest them,” Kabi said.

Kurdish officials said they conduct raids with U.S. troops but only against suspected insurgents, who are mostly Arabs. {snip}

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His men, [a senior non-Kurdish police commander] said, cannot even enter the neighborhood to respond to any complaints against Kurds because “they control the area.” When asked why not, Abdul Rahman faintly smiled and said, “Political issues.”

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Two Arab families still live in their section. Socializing is limited to cordial greetings. “They are Muslims, like us,” Mahadeen [Salahadin Mahadeen, a Kurd and Darawan’s father] explained.

“I don’t trust them,” Sharif [Zaitoon Sharif, Mahadeen’s wife] said. “They are living among Kurds. So they have to be nice to us. But if they become powerful again, they will treat us differently.”

Mahadeen is worried about Maliki’s plan to create tribal councils to support the central government, seeing similarities to Hussein’s nurturing of Iraq’s tribes. “Now, there is a new dictator, but with a different name,” said Mahadeen. “He wants to make the Arabs more powerful.”

“Kurds lost much blood for Kirkuk—all what happened under Saddam, the executions, the jail sentences, the rapes, the blood—all of this was for Kirkuk,” Mahadeen said. “If the problem is oil, then we will give them the oil. We want the land.”

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Turkmens Displaced

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A Turkmen Shiite, Najafi [Amjad al-Najafi] said he believes the Turkmens are the original residents of Kirkuk. In fact, the Kurdish enclave—and all of Hay al-Wasiti, he adds—was owned by Turkmens. “It’s all Turkmen land, 100 percent.”

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“If there is tension between Arab and Turkmens against Kurds, or political issues, at the end of the day they are Kurds,” said Najafi. “If you make any wrong move, they will kill you right away.”

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Najafi asserts his Turkmen identity and proudly claims that some of the greatest philosophers in the Arabic language were Turkmens. He cringes every time he sees a map of Kurdistan, a hot seller in markets here, which portrays Kurdish aspirations: The borders include much of Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran.

“We have a saying here: If you give the Kurds Kirkuk, they will claim Iraq,” Najafi said. “If you give them Iraq, they will claim the entire Arab world.

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He’s also wary of some Arabs. “We have terrorists in our neighborhood. Most of them are Arabs,” Najafi said. “One day, I might be targeted because I am Shiite.”

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