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Wave Of Kurd Refugees Flood Into Kirkuk

by Aaron Glantz

to series on Kurdistan and Iraq election

(IPS) KIRKUK -- It is Eid al-Athad, one of the holiest days in the Muslim calendar. It marks the day Abraham's son Isaac was saved from sacrifice when a lamb was offered up instead.

Earlier in the morning most families have killed a sheep for the holiday. Kurdish residents of Kirkuk later went door to door meeting their neighbors, exchanging sweets and kissing one another on the cheek in traditional Iraqi greeting.

But despite the happiness they are expressing this holiday, Kurds here live an extremely hard life. Many live in a shantytown built inside Kirkuk's municipal football stadium. They are refugees of Saddam Hussein's campaign of ethnic cleansing.

They were driven out of Kirkuk as more and more Arabs were brought in. Now, many Kurds have started returning. Some found place only in the football stadium, where they live in one-room shacks with no doors toilet facilities.

"Their houses were destroyed or given to former Ba'athists," says Khadel Mosekhadera, a teacher and head of the camp, "so they can't get their houses back. They have nowhere to go."

As the occupation becomes more violent, more and more Kurds who were forced out of Kirkuk in the 1980s have tried to return to the city, and so the number of people living in camps has grown. Today about 500 families live in the municipal football stadium, more than twice as many as a year ago.

Frustrations among residents of the camp are rising. Hadi Ali Amin lost two of her sons in Saddam Hussein's cleansing campaign. "An NGO (non-governmental organization) helped us with running water and some carpets," she says, "but we don't say Amen to these things."

Like many Kurds in the camp, she is filled with nationalist fervour and a desire to include the oil-rich city in an area governed by Iraqi Kurds. "I have lost two sons," she says, "and I can lose two more, I don't care, but this is our grandfathers' land and we must hold it."

The refugees in Kirkuk's municipal football stadium are but a fraction of the Kurds who have returned to the city since the fall of Saddam. Kurdish political parties estimate that 100,000 Kurds have moved back. Many of them live in shantytowns on the outskirts in the city, with no running water or electricity.

Kirkuk has a population of about 600,000, but the ethnic break-up is highly disputed. About the only thing anyone can agree on is that it includes large numbers of Kurds, people of Arab origin, and Turcoman (northern Iraqis of Turkish origin). But many Kurds want to reclaim Kirkuk as a Kurdish city.

The United States has taken a delicate stand on the status of Kirkuk. "Efforts to remedy the unjust policies of the Saddam government in and around Kirkuk, which included the forced deportation of residents, confiscation of property and the manipulation of administrative boundaries, are internal issues for Iraqis to decide," a U.S. spokesman said last week.

Political parties that represent the city's large Arab and Turcoman populations launched an unsuccessful campaign against allowing Kurdish refugees in Kirkuk the chance to vote in the Jan. 30 election, for fear that Kurds themselves would attempt a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

But not all feel this way. "I don't care what the political leaders of the Turcoman parties are saying," says 62-year-old retired Turcoman bureaucrat Ismael Jalil Khalil. "Kirkuk is not a special place for Kurds or Turcoman or Arabs or Christians. It's a city of brotherhood for all the people of Iraq. The most important thing is that people here are given the opportunity to vote for whomever they want."

Khalil says he does not know who he will vote for in the upcoming election. He wants to see the list of candidates first -- and that is being kept secret until election day.

Kurds, meanwhile, all have the same answer to who they will vote for. They will be voting for a united Kurdish slate that stands for making Kirkuk a part of Iraqi Kurdistan.

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Albion Monitor January 19, 2005 (

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