On August 6, Hussein Jaffar went to speak with the Kurdish family and ask them to pay some compensation for the house. "In the confusion and fighting one of the family members shot him dead and dropped his body on the outskirts of Kirkuk," Ala'a said.
The city of Kirkuk, Iraq's biggest oil-producing city, was long known as a city where people of different ethnic groups -- namely Turkomans, Kurds, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Arabs -- lived together in peace.
However, an ďArabization' program initiated in the former regime of Saddam Hussein in the early 1980s drove tens of thousands of Kurds and other non-Arabs out of Kirkuk, to be replaced with pro-government Arabs from the impoverished south.
After US-led coalition forces began their occupation of Iraq in April 2003, Kurds and people of other non-Arab ethnicities began returning to the area to reclaim their property.
Local government authorities estimate that there are up to 190,000 people of all ethnicities displaced in Kirkuk as a result of the Arabization program before and those being forced to leave their homes now.
As security deteriorates in Iraq and sectarian violence escalates, tensions over land claims in Kirkuk have become severe and violent, according to local police and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). They estimate that dozens of people have been killed in recent months because of land disputes.
"People have become displaced and others killed because the government is so late in resolving this sensitive and important issue," said Huda Fatihi, spokesperson for the local Kirkuk Union for Displaced Families (KUDF), which helps resettle people. "Violence in such cases has become a normal scene in the city."
Although a commission was formed two years ago to deal with the land claims, thousands are still unresolved.
According to the Iraqi Property Claims Commission (IPCC), which began assessing Kirkuk claims in June 2004, nearly 54,000 claims have been registered to date, but fewer than 900 have been settled.
"We have been trying to solve the problems in Kirkuk, but since January the situation is getting much worse due to sectarian violence countrywide -- and that affects Kirkuk which today has one of the most mixed ethnicities in Iraq," said senior IPCC official Youssef Ahmed.
"Unfortunately, one of the main reasons that tensions are rising in Kirkuk is that more than 90 percent of the cases already solved have given the Kurds the right to inhabit the lands and no compensation has been given to Arabs."
Iraq's new constitution, approved by voters in October 2005, stipulates in Article 140 that there be "normalization, a census and a referendum in Kirkuk and other disputed territories to determine the will of their citizens before December 31 2007."
Although not specified in the constitution, the referendum is likely to determine the status of Kirkuk within the Kurdish region and the Iraqi Federation, according to an International Crisis Group (ICG) report.
Ahmed said that under current federal law, Kirkuk lands should return to the original owners and compensation should be given to those Arabs who built anything there. But some claims on the value of construction are disputed, and many others -- such as that of Nissirin Ala'a -- have not even come before the commission yet.
"Even our office was the victim of threats, being accused of giving preference to the Kurdish population, but the truth is that we are just following the law and the history of the land claimed," Ahmed said.
The conflict is so severe that it could spark a civil war, warned the ICG in a report issued on July 18.
"Unless the international community acts soon to resolve mounting tensions in Kirkuk, the result could well be yet another violent communal conflict in Iraq, risking full scale civil war and possibly outside military intervention," the report said.
The ICG also recommended that the Iraqi government should hasten the return of people forcibly displaced from Kirkuk and guarantee that no families are left abandoned.
Joost Hiltermann, Middle East Project Director for ICG, said that the underlying issue is not property disputes but how to manage the return of displaced Iraqis (mostly Kurds) when there was so much destruction and now a high rate of unemployment.
"This does not mean that there shouldn't be further efforts to settle the many disputes that do exist, but that major additional resources should be allocated to the rehabilitation of the countryside and those neighborhoods in Kirkuk that were destroyed," Hiltermann said. "Moreover, funds should be made available to bring productive and labor-intensive projects to Kirkuk, as the economic situation is deplorable."
Hiltermann said measures should be taken to undo decades of Arabization but that the immediate priority was to find a negotiated solution to the looming crisis before the December 2007 referendum.
"Without that, violence will continue, no development will take place, and Kirkuk will become the focus of civil war," he said.
[Integrated Regional Information Networks is a project the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies.]
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