Six bodies uncovered in February during construction on an old Iraqi army base in Iraqi Kurdistan were grim reminders of the Ba’th regime’s past genocidal policies towards the Kurds. “The past is ever present in Kurdistan,” as one Kurdish journalist says. But little reminder is needed of past atrocities when the present provides an ongoing illustration.

Every week, week after week, year after year, dozens of Kurdish, Turkoman or Assyrian or Chaldean Christian families are forcibly expelled from Iraqi government-held areas and show up destitute in the Kurdish self-rule region. They are the latest victims of nearly 40 years of ethnic cleansing that continues unabated today. Kurdish sources say that in the past ten years alone nearly 200,000 people have been forced out of the predominantly Kurdish districts of Kirkuk, Khanaqin and Sinjar, which run along the line between Kurdish- and central government-held areas. More conservative estimates, like that of the US Committee for Refugees, say nearly 100,000. At any rate, by summer 2001, the forced deportation of non-Arabs was happening on “a large scale,” according to the UN special rapporteur on Iraq. (1)

These numbers represent but a few of an unknown number of non-Arabs whose ethnic cleansing from a strategically significant and oil-rich area of Iraq began long before the term “ethnic cleansing” entered the vocabulary of international law and human rights.


Jalah Jawhar, minister of industry in Sulaimaniyya, where the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) controls one of two Kurdish enclaves, is documenting the slow demographic shift in northwestern Iraq from predominantly Kurdish to predominantly Arab. He publishes Kirkuk magazine and is writing a book on the “whole history” of Arabization.

Jawhar is one of hundreds of thousands of Kirkukis who staff the offices, classrooms and businesses of Kurdish urban centers like Sulaimaniyya and Erbil in today’s self-governing area. Families like Jawhar’s, expelled in the 1970s and 1980s, are now fairly well-established in their new lives. But they never forget where they came from, and never give up hope of returning. Kirkukis write reports, submit commentary to local and international newspapers, organize Kirkuk cultural centers and start organizations like the Higher Committee for Confronting Arabization.

More recently deported Kirkukis jam in to dismal collective towns to which the Iraqi government forcefully moved Kurds in the 1970s and 1980s to strip the countryside of a population to support Kurdish guerrillas. Others make do with informal camps on the outskirts of urban centers where they do their best to erect homes with scraps of canvas, old jerry cans and, if they are lucky, handmade mud bricks. Most are suddenly dispossessed middle-class business and property owners. They survive by their wits and a faulty patchwork of aid from the UN, NGOs and family who may have preceded them in flight.

While those forced out by the Iraqi government’s Arabization policies since the 1960s hail from hundreds of cities, towns and villages along the dividing line between the Kurdish self-ruled area and government-held territory, they are often all referred to as Kirkukis. In some ways, Kirkuk lies at the heart of Kurdish nationalism, and certainly at the heart of Kurdish-Ba’th Party fighting over the shape of Kurdish autonomy within Iraq. “Kirkuk is to the Kurds what Jerusalem is to the Palestinians,” says Salah Rashid, the minister of humanitarian affairs, displaced persons and Anfal victims in Sulaimaniyya.

Kirkuk has been a majority-Kurdish city for hundreds of years. It lies along an important trade and administrative route linking what is now central Iraq with Turkey, Syria and Iran. Commerce and governance brought Arabs and Turks to the area, but even the Ba’th admitted in 1989 that their Arabization efforts to date “did not raise the percentage [of Arabs and Turkomans in Kirkuk] to 60 percent.” (2)

Huge oil fields stretching from south of Kirkuk up to Erbil were discovered in the early part of the twentieth century. They offered the Kurds enormous economic promise but brought political catastrophe.

The Kurds claim that the Kirkuk area is Kurdish and therefore must be part of any Kurdish autonomous area. They further claim they should receive a percentage of oil revenues from the area. But since Kirkuk oil accounted for 70 percent of Iraq’s total oil output by the 1970s, successive post-monarchy regimes have not been amenable to Kurdish views that Kirkuk should be a part of their autonomous region. Various autonomy negotiations between the Kurds and Iraqi regimes, from the 1960s to 1991, have fallen on the sword of Kirkuk. The past four decades have been an endless cycle of government oppression, Kurdish rebellion, war, negotiations and breakdown of negotiations.

Kirkuk oil is the primary but not the only reason for the cyclic warfare. The various Iraqi governments from 1958 onward were steeped in the pan-Arabism of the day, which by definition rejected Kurdish claims of self-determination in an Arab state. The Ba’th Party saw Kurdish nationalists as a possible Trojan horse because of their early collaboration with Iran, the United States and even Israel. There is some speculation that Saddam Hussein and other Ba’thists have racist attitudes towards the Kurds who are more closely related, ethnically, to Persians than to Arabs. (3)

Creating Facts on the Ground

Iraqi governments could only claim that Kirkuk is outside the Kurdish area by altering the demographic reality. This they have done with some success through an ethnic cleansing policy they themselves refer to as Arabization. (4)

When the Ba’th Party first came to power in 1963, it immediately began to force Kurds, Turkomans and Christians from the villages surrounding the oil fields. Their villages were destroyed and rebuilt for Arab settlers. The second Ba’thist regime of 1968, in need of time to consolidate power, decided to appease the Kurds by stating in the 1970 constitution that Iraq consists of both Arab and Kurdish nationalities, and recognizing the national rights of the Kurdish people. Negotiations over autonomy began in 1970, but broke down when Mullah Mustafa Barzani, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), laid formal claim to the Kirkuk oilfields.

The government saw Barzani’s claim as an act of war and unilaterally decreed an autonomy statute in 1974. The Kurds rejected it and renewed fighting. Under the 1974 autonomy, the boundaries of the Kirkuk governorate were split in two to allow for an Arab majority around the city proper. Heavily Kurdish cities like Chamchamal, Kifri and Kalar were reallocated to other Kurdish governorates.

With the defeat of the Kurdish rebellion in 1975, the Ba’thist government seized the opportunity to bring the Kurds to heel once and for all. This required moving Kurds off their ancestral homelands and into areas where they could be controlled. The government created a security belt up to 18 miles deep along the northern Iranian and Turkish borders, razed as many as 1,400 rural villages, and herded as many as 600,000 people into collective resettlement towns in the plains, under the watchful eye of the Iraqi military. Tens of thousands were shipped off to die in the southern deserts. Anyone caught trying to return to their home was summarily executed.

The Ba’th regime also took this opportunity to settle the demographic balance in the disputed areas near the oilfields. Arabization that had begun in the 1960s was reinvigorated. More than one million Kurdish, Turkoman and Assyrian residents were forced out of the disputed districts of Khanaqin, Kirkuk, Mandali, Zakuh and Sinjar. They were replaced with Egyptian and Iraqi Arab settlers enticed northward with housing and property incentives.

Laws were altered to make it difficult for Kurds to hold property or gain employment. Arabs were rewarded financially for marrying Kurdish women. Kurdish civil servants were moved out of Kurdistan to work in Arab districts. Kurdish faculty at the new university in Sulaimaniyya were dismissed. Kurdish names were changed to Arab names. The city of Kirkuk, for example, was changed to al-Ta’mim, “nationalization.” Investigators from Middle East Watch (now Human Rights Watch) have pointed out that Arabization was no haphazard operation. In the 1970s, the Ba’th government set up the Revolutionary Command Council’s Committee for Northern Affairs, headed by Saddam Hussein, to orchestrate the mass relocation of the Kurdish population.

Arabization abated with the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, when government troops redeployed to the front. As the war drew to a close, the Ba’th instituted the final solution to the “Kurdish problem” with the 1988 Anfal campaign of genocide, run from Kirkuk by Saddam Hussein’s cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid.

During the Anfal campaign, 100,000 Kurds, the vast majority of them non-combatants, were killed outright. Another 182,000 disappeared and are presumed dead, though the government refuses to confirm their deaths. As many as 4,000 more villages were destroyed and another 500,000 people were forced to collective towns. Chemical weapons were used in at least 40 separate attacks. KDP leader Masoud Barzani said simply, “We cannot fight chemical weapons with bare hands. We just cannot fight on.” (5)

“Nationality Correction”

Following the Kurdish uprising after the 1990-1991 Gulf war — in which Kirkuk was the ultimate Kurdish goal — and the establishment of the safe haven, the Iraqi Kurdistan Front, consisting of all major political parties, once again negotiated with Baghdad, skeptical of the longevity of international protection. They talked of federation and Baghdad seemed willing — for a short time — to cede administration of Kirkuk, but not the oilfields, to the Kurds. But the regime refused to allow international guarantees and in the end refused to delineate the exact borders of the Kurdish region, leaving the status of Kirkuk and other cities along the oil belt unresolved. The Front finally pulled out of negotiations in July 1991.

In October 1991 the central government withdrew all government services from three Kurdish governorates in the north — roughly along the lines of the 1974 autonomy law — and imposed an internal embargo. Baghdad apparently felt that if left to their own devices, and without fuel, food, electricity or any other government service, the Kurds would be more pliant negotiating partners. But ten years on the Kurds have not resumed autonomy talks with the regime, though there has been some communication with the government. After an internal war in the mid-1990s, there are two Kurdish governments, headed by the PUK and KDP respectively, operating quite efficiently in three Kurdish districts.

Meanwhile, Arabization policies seem to have increased in intensity. When the government retook Kirkuk after the 1991 uprising, they brutally forced out thousands of Kurds.

Kamaran is one of them. He was originally “Arabized,” as he says, in 1989. But he snuck back into Kirkuk to look after his family and thriving appliance shop. “It was a clandestine way of living,” he says. He was forced to flee again in 1991 after the uprising. His family has lived in Kirkuk for as long as they can remember. His father started working in the oil fields in 1958, but was expelled and his house destroyed in 1963. Iraqi policy has since changed and Kurdish, Turkoman and Assyrian homes and businesses are no longer destroyed. Rather, homes and businesses are handed over as “gifts” from President Saddam Hussein to new Arab settlers, often along with a lump sum of money and arms for “protection,” according to al-Ta’mim, the government newspaper in Kirkuk.

Kamaran and his wife and five children now live in a community built by the UN’s Habitat and a local NGO, Kurdistan Save the Children, on the edge of Chamchamal, between Sulaimaniyya and Kirkuk. “We are among Kurds now,” Kamaran says. “We have freedom.” Would he like to go back? “Of course,” he says quietly. “Kirkuk is my home.”

According to Nizam Din Gili, the Kurdish governor of Erbil, which lies inside the KDP area a few miles from Kirkuk, a typical scenario for expulsion from government-held areas goes like this: when a non-Arab has to register children for school or renew a driver’s license, he is asked if he would like to “correct” his nationality card. All Iraqis have an identification card that identifies them by ethnic origin. Non-Arabs are “allowed” to fill in a form saying they would like to “correct” their ethnicity to Arab. If they refuse, they and their families are forced into the Kurdish-controlled area, leaving behind all possessions. They are not allowed to sell any property they may own. If they “correct” the ethnic identity to Arab, they are often told: well, if you are an Arab, you might as well live in the south. They are then shipped off to the predominantly Shi’i south, and are sometimes allowed to bring household goods.

Hamid, who lives in Bisaslawa camp near Erbil, experienced a more proactive but also typical mechanism for expulsion. In 1997, a security official paid Hamid a visit and said he needed to report to a police station. There he was forced to hand over his identification and food ration cards and other papers. He was told it was time to leave Kirkuk. A male family member was arrested at the same time and held at the police station. Hamid returned home, loaded up his wife and children and the few belongings the security official said he could take and drove to the police station. The relative was released when the police saw that Hamid’s family was ready to leave. An officer accompanied the truck to the border with the Kurdish-governed area a few dozen miles away.

“In a matter of minutes, they can wrap you up and ship you off to another city,” Hamid says four years later from the floor of his new cement-block house. His brother and father and their families had been forced out this way, and recent arrivals at the various camps inside the Kurdish self-rule enclaves tell similar stories.

Ethnic Cleansing

A new Iraqi law makes the first form of deportation legal. In September 2001, the Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council passed Resolution 119, which gives non-Arab Iraqis over 18 the “right” to change their ethnic identity to Arab. The Kirkuk Trust for Research and Studies, headed by Lord Avebury of the British Parliamentary Human Rights Group and Kevin Boyle of the University of Essex, points out that this law is in direct violation of Iraq’s 1970 constitution which states that all Iraqis are equal, regardless of ethnic language, religion or social class. The constitution further states, as cited above, that Iraq consists of two main ethnic groups, Arabs and Kurds. “This law,” the Kirkuk Trust points out in a recent press release, “legalizes the regime’s policy of ethnic cleansing directed against all Kurds, Turkomans and Assyro-Chaldeans.”

The term “ethnic cleansing” came of age in the past decade in reference to the former Yugoslavia. While there is no single agreed-upon legal definition, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, special rapporteur of the UN Commission for Human Rights, has written, in reference to Yugoslavia: “The term ethnic cleansing refers to the elimination by the ethnic group exerting control over a given territory of members of other ethnic groups.” He later wrote, “[E]thnic cleansing may be equated with the systematic purge of the civilian population based on ethnic criteria, with the view to forcing it to abandon the territories where it lives.” (6) Iraq’s policies toward its ethnic minorities fit this definition.

Some have argued that ethnic cleansing is tantamount to genocide, particularly when mass expulsions are accompanied by large-scale killings intended to frighten even more members of the targeted ethnic group into fleeing. In denouncing Serbian policies in Bosnia, UN General Assembly Resolution 47/121 of December 18, 1992 refers to “the abhorrent policy of ‘ethnic cleansing,’ which is a form of genocide” in paragraph 9 of the preamble. One judge who heard Bosnia’s 1993 suit against Yugoslavia in the International Court of Justice wrote an opinion stating that genocide had occurred, though the majority did not concur. There is no doubt, however, that acts of ethnic cleansing can be prosecuted as war crimes and crimes against humanity. (7)

For displaced people like Kamaran, who have little knowledge of debates in international jurisprudence, it is a simple matter of what is right. “A stone is heavier when it’s in its place,” he says, echoing other Kirkukis who now live as refugees in their own country.


 [1] US Committee for Refugees, World Refugee Survey 2001 (Washington, DC, 2001).

 [2] Middle East Watch [now Human Rights Watch], Genocide in Iraq: The Anfal Campaign Against the Kurds (New York, 1993), p. 353. From a transcript of audiotape of Ali Hassan al-Majid speaking to his successor as Secretary of the Northern Bureau. It is unclear if Majid is speaking of Kirkuk city or the governorate.

 [3] Ibid., p. 35.

 [4] Ibid., p. 353.

 [5] This history is taken from Middle East Watch, op cit.; David McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds (London, I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2000); Jonathan Randall, After Such Knowledge What Forgiveness? My Encounters with Kurdistan (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1997); and interviews with officials in Iraqi Kurdistan in the summer of 2001.

 [6] Drazen Petrovic, “Ethnic Cleansing: An Attempt at Methodology,” European Journal of International Law 5/3 (1994).

 [7] For a complete discussion, see William Schabas, Genocide in International Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 189-201.

How to cite this article:

Maggy Zanger "Refugees in Their Own Country," Middle East Report 222 (Spring 2002).

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