Guilt by Association

The Cruel Logic of Iraq's New Ethnic Cleansers

Khanaqin, IraqThe Kurdish families drove hastily packed trucks over the hills to the eastern Iraqi village of Baba Mahmood five weeks ago, coming home almost 30 years after they were forcibly relocated to western Iraq from this rural, verdant patch, and replaced with Arab families, mostly from southern Iraq. So far, only 10 Kurdish families have returned to this community, which can accommodate 10 times that number, and so Baba Mahmood today is still a deserted, spooky little village. The names of future Kurdish residents are sprayed in green paint on the doors of empty mud apartments, still littered with plastic shoes, personal documents, and sheep's wool left by their former occupants. And on the edge of the village, the Kurds have wasted no time plowing the fields straddling a filthy stream, where they will plant orange, apple, and plum trees—fruits they say their families harvested here before they left in 1975.

Ibrahim Ismail, one of the returnees, says by the time he reached Baba Mahmood four days after the end of the war, the village had been emptied. Members of the Iraqi Arab family that lived in the house he has taken over returned only once, to collect their furniture. "They came with a truck and took their things," he says. "I didn't ask their names." Ismail says this land has belonged to the Kurds since Ottoman times. "The Arabs cut down the trees our families had planted, and they used them to cover their houses," he says, pointing to the timber roof of one hut. "They told me that they always knew we'd come back."

It is Kurdish land, he repeats, surrounded by his children and a brother, who also claimed one of the houses. "The Arabs knew this, and so they left."

Whether the Arabs left, or indeed were forced out by the peshmerga (Kurdish fighters) of Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), is disputed. Many of the Arab families evicted from this area say returning Kurdish soldiers gave them 48 hours to leave their villages, and that they had no choice but to comply. A spokesman for the PUK calls this claim a "lie."

Regardless of how it happened, the result is clear—large populations in the country are again being forced into the uneasy limbo of homelessness, some of them for a fourth or fifth time in their lives. It is an ever expanding wave from the war in Iraq, uprooting peoples as a festering vengeance ripples out onto the land, undoing the social order in a succession of quickly settled scores.

The Kurds have moved quickly, and some of the officials who represent them say that it is the "original sin"—the persecution of their people under successive central governments—which justifies, in the words of one PUK minister, "the counter-act [sic] of ethnic cleansing." Why wait for the new government, says the minister, when the road to redress in this case is clear? The Arabs in places like Baba Mahmood were collaborators with the regime, say the Kurds who replaced them, and as such, they must have expected the other shoe to drop.

But Saddam Hussein's sins stain many in Iraq these days, and in recent weeks Baghdad's Palestinians have also come under fire for their alleged crimes, if not only for the affection the regime had for their cause. Like the Arab villagers from the Kurdish areas, they have been forced out of their homes, in this case, by their landlords.


Many Iraqi Arabs who fled Baba Mahmood and other formerly Kurdish villages around the city of Khanaqin say they did indeed expect that the original residents would one day come back, and that they understood the Kurds were unjustly evicted from their villages by the central government. Many of the Arabs belong to a handful of tribes originally from southern Iraq. They are now settled in a number of large buildings on the road north of Baghdad, occupying most of a large, unfinished prison, and parts of a badly looted military college.

Khanaqin was a focal point of the so-called policy of Arabization, and a large part of that policy meant replacing Kurds with Arabs, especially in and around oil-rich cities like Khanaqin and Kirkuk, in an effort to alter the demographic balance. In its more severe forms, this policy meant genocide, as demonstrated by the ruthless 1988 Anfal campaign that resulted in the deaths of over 100,000 Kurds.

Sabinah Abdullah, a tattooed, elderly matriarch of the Al-Nadawi tribe, blames God and not Saddam for her family's current lot. Forty family members have settled in what appears to have been a dormitory at the military college. There is no water available, so they draw it from the river, which she says is making everyone sick. Luckily, a family member is a doctor at a nearby clinic, so there is some medicine available. They still have the government food rations handed out before the war, which she reckons will last for another month and a half.

She says PUK officials came to her village not far from Khanaqin two days before the end of the war, and gave them 24 hours to leave. There was no offer of money for her home, but they did offer to pay for transportation. She and her family settled the village in 1978, encouraged to move by a government discount of roughly $30,000 for a house. Her husband worked in the oil ministry there, and yes, other family members were soldiers, but some simply worked in construction. She says after the family was evicted, they tried to get help from American soldiers. "But the translator was a Kurd," she says. "I don't think he translated correctly."

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