Sunday, 22 April 2012, 06:54 GMT
In Uprooting of Kurds, Iraq Tests a Fragile National Unity


Kurds in northern Diyala Province have faced a campaign of terror. In Jalawla, a Kurdish official's home was bombed./ The New York Times

The New York Times

"I'm not afraid," he said. "This is my duty. I have to do my work."

In January, the dismembered body of Wisam Jumai, a Kurdish intelligence officer, was discovered in a field in Sadiyah, a small town in northeastern Iraq. Soon his family and friends, one after another, received text messages offering a choice: leave or be killed.
"Wisam has been killed," read one message sent to a cousin. "Wait for your turn. If you want your life, leave Sadiyah."

After Mr. Jumai's killing, nearly three dozen Kurdish families fled their homes and moved here, according to local officials, to the sanctuary of a city that is claimed by the government in Baghdad but patrolled by Kurdish forces. Other Kurds from the area have come here after being pushed out over property disputes that can be traced to Saddam Hussein's policy in the 1970s of expelling Kurds and resettling Arabs.

Whether by terrorism or judicial order, the continuing displacement of Iraq's Kurdish minority lays bare the unfinished business of reconciliation in the wake of the American military's withdrawal, and it is a symptom of the rapidly deteriorating relationship between the semiautonomous Kurdish government based in Erbil and the central government in Baghdad.

The schism, which is most immediately over sharing oil wealth but is more deeply about historical grievances and Kurdish aspirations for independence, raises serious questions about the future of a unified Iraq. The crisis, American officials say, is far more grave than the political tensions between the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and the country's Sunni Arab minority set off by an arrest warrant on terrorism charges issued in December for Tariq al-Hashimi, the Sunni vice president.

The Kurds, unlike the Sunnis, have their own security forces, oil reserves, ports of entry and even their own de facto foreign policy, with envoys operating in other countries. This could eventually lead them to seek more independence from Baghdad.

"Fearing a resurgence of a strong central state, Kurdish leaders want to leave Iraq, and they appear to believe their moment to do so may soon arrive," wrote Joost Hiltermann, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, in a recent report.

In the latest chapter of a long-simmering dispute, Kurdish authorities have shut off their oil exports, claiming that Baghdad is behind on payments to oil companies working in the Kurdish region. Officials in Baghdad, angered by this and by Kurdistan's oil deal with Exxon Mobil that bypasses the central government, in turn threatened to cut off billions of dollars that flow to Kurdistan from the Iraqi budget. Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish regional government, has called Mr. Maliki a dictator and expressed fears that Baghdad might use American-supplied F-16 warplanes against the Kurds. Both sides have accused the other of smuggling oil and siphoning off profits.

"I cannot respect myself, working with the people in Baghdad," said Mohammed Ihsan, the Kurdish government's representative in Baghdad, who is calling for a referendum in Kurdistan on independence, something he acknowledged was unfeasible in the short term because of Western opposition. "But a lot of people are thinking that way,"he said.

American officials are concerned that Kurdish leaders are considering seeking a deal to sell oil to Turkey, in an effort to become economically self-sufficient. Such a pact would probably be illegal and unlikely before 2014, when Kurdistan is expected to complete its own oil pipeline.

"The Kurds hope, however, that Turkey's thirst for oil and gas will align with their own thirst for statehood," Mr. Hiltermann wrote in his report.

Kurds are captive to the painful memories of repression under Hussein; like the Sunni and Shiite Arabs, who fought a brutal sectarian war, the Kurds, too, cling to a narrow identity, theirs defined by ethnicity, rather than national citizenship.

"How can we forget?" said Bakir Karim, a member of the Kurdish Parliament in Erbil who described Iraq as a "fake state" created by the British after World War I that, he said, has only "harmed us and tortured us."

He added, "If you ask any Kurd if he wants independence from Iraq, without hesitation he will say yes."

Khanaqin, a few miles from the Iranian border, lies at the end of a belt of rugged land in northern Diyala Province that runs from Sadiyah through Jalawla, another disputed town. It is also a place of ethnic rivalry, where Arabs and Kurds are trying the soft ways of democracy to settle feuds that nevertheless can still end in bloodshed.

Outside a Kurdish political office in Jalawla is a mural of three men, representing the area's main ethnicities: Arab, Kurd and Turkmen. "We are all brothers," it declares.

Inside, Khader Mohammed, who directs the office, waved an intelligence report he recently received from authorities in Baquba, Diyala's capital. It claimed that the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group of militants, would "attempt a number of attacks to destabilize the security situation in the province." Among the targets: Mr. Mohammed.

"I'm not afraid," he said. "This is my duty. I have to do my work."

Karim Ali, 60, is among those who may soon leave. Like many Kurds here, Mr. Ali was forced out in the mid-1970s as part of the Hussein government's "Arabization" policy, which aimed to dilute ethnic opposition. He resettled in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, but reclaimed his old home in 2003 as some Arabs, fearing revenge from the Kurds, decided to return to their original homes in other regions.

Though a court was set up to handle claims stemming from the Arabization policy, Kurds say that property records that would verify their ownership claims were destroyed. As a result, Arabs are now reclaiming homes that were seized from Kurdish families in the Hussein years.

This, Mr. Ali said, is what happened to him. "This belonged to my father," he said, standing outside his home. "In 20 days, I have to evacuate my house." He said he was taken to a police station in handcuffs several months ago and forced to sign papers turning the property over to an Arab who held the deed from 1975 to 2003.

"It's the same as during Saddam," Mr. Ali said. "It's even worse now because I was young then, and now I'm old."

Local officials say nearly 400 houses in Jalawla are being turned over in a similar fashion. Mr. Ihsan, the Kurdish representative in Baghdad, is also involved in matters related to these disputed areas. He said the process was rife with corruption: "We have the most corrupted judicial system in the world." (A 2009 report on internal displacement in Iraq by the Brookings Institution and the University of Bern called the process one of "incomprehension" and "frustration.")

"It's getting worse," Mr. Ihsan said. "The Americans left without finishing the job. We are worried that history is going to repeat itself."

For their part, Arabs in the area say that they are also targets of terrorist attacks, and that the property transfers are the result of a fair and legal process.

On a recent afternoon, Rasmiya Ahmed, the mother of Mr. Jumai, the murdered officer, unzipped a blue nylon pouch and out tumbled the strips of pills that provide her with a measure of relief from her sleeplessness and anxiety. Another son, a soldier, was killed last year. "I don't have anyone now," she said.

The Kurds may be free from the Baath Party's brutality, but for Ms. Ahmed things were better then, because, she said, "at least I had my boys."