IRAQ: Humanitarian situation remains critical in Kirkuk as ethnic tensions rise

BAGHDAD, 14 March 2006 (IRIN) - The oil-rich city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq has been the scene of ongoing displacement and rising ethnic tensions in the past six months, according to local officials.

"The humanitarian situation in the city is very bad and thousands of innocent people are still displaced,” said Nuri al-Salihi, a spokesman for the Iraqi Red Crescent Society (IRCS). “But nothing has been done to help them because of a recent increase in sectarian violence that has delayed the work of many local NGOs."

According to IRCS officials in Kirkuk, located some 255 km north of Baghdad, little aid has come from the main IRCS branch in the capital in the past eight months. This, they say, is due to major displacements in the western Anbar governorate and recent flooding there that forced thousands of residents to flee their homes.

Ahmed Mashhdanny, a senior Kirkuk governorate official, said that more than 200,000 Kirkuk residents have been displaced since 2003 and more than 300 have been killed in ethnic fighting over land. "The return of the Kurds to the city left thousands of Arabs displaced in deteriorating conditions and has increased ethnic aggression between the two groups," he said.

Under an “Arabisation” programme initiated under the former regime of Saddam Hussein, tens of thousands of Kurds and other non-Arabs were driven out of the city, to be replaced with pro-government Arabs from the impoverished south. After Hussein’s ouster by coalition forces in April 2003, however, Kurds began returning to the area to reclaim their property.

This, in turn, led to the displacement of thousands of Arabs, Mashhdanny explained. "Thousands of displaced people from different ethnic groups – mainly Arabs – can now be seen in improvised camps on the outskirts of Kirkuk, as well as in abandoned government buildings and schools,” he said. “Kurds, Arabs and Turcomans are suffering because measures haven’t been taken to secure their rights.”

Article 58 of the 2004 Transitional Administrative Law theoretically sets out to restore Kurdish rights, as well as safeguard the rights of Arabs forced to move to Kirkuk under the former regime. "The article guarantees compensation to Arabs who have been forced out of their homes by the original Kurdish owners, but it hasn’t been put in practice yet,” said Mashhadanny. “Only Kurds have been able to reclaim their property with the support of local Kurdish parties."

"This delay in solving the problem has led to the death of hundreds who were claiming their rights,” Mashhadanny added. “And the problem hasn’t been taken seriously by the government."

According to the Iraqi Property Claims Commission (IPCC), which began assessing claims in June 2004, nearly 52,000 claims have been registered to date, although fewer than 610 have been settled. "About 95 per cent of the 610 cases which have been settled were for Kurds who were granted the right to return and reclaim their properties and businesses,” said senior IPCC official Youssef Ahmed. “But practically no Arabs have received compensation after leaving their homes."

Abbas al-Bayati, president of the Islamic Union of Iraqi Turcoman People and a Member of Parliament, agreed that property ownership issues were not being settled even-handedly. "Turcomans and Arabs are searching for a minimum of respect, which Kurds are getting with the support of the Kurdish parties,” he said. “But we don’t have anyone to look after our interests, and – day after day – we’re losing our land, our respect and our human rights."

Theme (s): Refugees/IDPs,


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