Iraqi Arab residents of the northern oil-rich city of Kirkuk, some 250km from Baghdad, say scores of Arab families are fleeing the city as ethnic violence increases there.
[Read this story in Arabic]
“The attacks on our community have worsened since February 2007. We are being forced to leave the city almost empty-handed and the government isn’t taking any action to support us,” said Ali Akram Mahmoud, a spokesperson for Kirkuk’s Arabs Association (KAA), formed in 2003 with the aim of safeguarding the rights of Arabs who had settled in the city.
“The number of [Arab] families fleeing the city has increased by 20 percent on previous years. Their flight will seriously affect the upcoming referendum in which Kurds will have a majority not because of their numbers but because, with guns in their hands, they will have forced all Arabs to flee the city. It is absolutely unfair,” he said.
The December 2007 Kirkuk status referendum is due to decide whether the city becomes part of the Iraqi Kurdistan region.
“The most common scene in Kirkuk is of families filling cars with their relatives and fleeing the city in the early morning,” said Jihad Muhammad, a political analyst at Mustansiriyah University.
Kirkuk was long considered a microcosm of Iraq with its diversity of ethnic and religious groups. However, former President Saddam Hussein’s “Arabisation” policy in the early 1980s and during the 1990s forced tens of thousands of Kurds and other non-Arabs to flee. They were replaced with pro-government Arabs from the impoverished south.
Following the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, tens of thousands of Kurds returned to Kirkuk, with their house keys, to find their homes either sold or given to Arabs. This led to attacks by Kurds on Arabs.
Photo: Saeed Kudaimati/IRIN
|A map of Iraq highlighting Kirkuk province|
Advised to flee south
A local Iraq Red Crescent senior official, who prefers anonymity for security reasons, said since June 2007 at least 2,000 Arab families had fled Kirkuk. “Hundreds of families are fleeing the city without their belongings.” They had been forced to search for displacement camps and many had joined the nearly one million displaced families in southern governorates, whilst others were staying on roadsides or in poor areas, he said.
In a local police station IRIN witnessed dozens of families begging for help from police after being forced from their homes by Kurdish militias. They were all told the same thing - that they could not be given individual protection and that they would be best advised to find more secure accommodation in southern Iraq.
The city, a multi-ethnic mix of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Turkomans and Armenians, has plenty of oil, but may not have much time left to avoid being dragged into sectarian bloodshed.