THE INDEPENDANT 15 March 2003
Kurds have started to flee the northern Iraqi oil province of Kirkuk to escape arrest by authorities, who have begun detaining men of military age to prevent a Kurdish rebellion when the US invades Iraq.
“I ran away because Saddam’s people are taking young men who could carry a gun in an uprising,” said Zama Fathi, 23, a labourer, who reached Qush Teppa in Kurdish-held territory north of Kirkuk yesterday. “People just disappear.”
At least a thousand Kurds have fled Kirkuk since the searches and arrests started on Tuesday. Mr Fathi said: “In the late evening, people told me ‘don’t stay in your home tonight’. I and my two brothers hid in an Arab district in Kirkuk where they would not look for us. We bribed soldiers at a checkpoint to let us escape.” The detentions are the first move in what is likely to be a bitter and prolonged struggle for control of Kirkuk expected to erupt as soon as the US attacks. The Kurds vow to restore their majority in this Iraqi oil province by reversing decades of ethnic cleansing.
The terror of the Kurds in Kirkuk has been increased by reports of the presence in the city of Ali Hassan al-Majid, a senior lieutenant of Saddam Hussein, known as “Chemical Ali” because he oversaw the killing of 100,000 Kurds in 1988, many by poison gas.
Arrests are being carried out by armed members of the ruling Baath party who also search for weapons. A middle-aged woman named Hajal who had fled Kirkuk said: “Many men have left their homes and sleep in the local cemeteries.” Nor are the arrests confined to Kirkuk city. Hajad Bakr from Dibis, a town west of Kirkuk, said: “About 50 per cent of the men have left Dibis in the past ten days. It is going to get worse as we get closer to war.”
The refugees arriving in the Kurdish enclave which has had de facto independence since 1991, join 300,000 previously deported or forced to leave Most are hoping to go home when the American invasion starts, evicting the Arab settlers who have taken their homes. Mr Fathi said: “The Arabs in Kirkuk are all frightened.”
The right of Kurds to go home is strongly supported by their leaders. In his mountain-top headquarters at Salahudin Massoud Barzani, the most powerful Kurdish leader, said in an interview with The Independent that he was determined all the Kurdish refugees should return and replace Arab settlers, thereby restoring Kurdish majority in Kirkuk.
He said: “Our sacred aim is to bring people back to an area that has been formally Arabised.” The struggle for Kirkuk, which has gone on for more than 40 years, is likely to be one of most explosive by-products of the US invasion. Turkey has already said it will use its army to prevent Kurds seizing Kirkuk city by force.
Mr Barzani, the stocky, determined-looking leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which rules west Kurdistan, declared the Kurds must be allowed “to de-Arabise” areas. He added he would go personally to Kirkuk if the Kurds were not allowed back.
The US has hinted it will try to capture Kirkuk city and the oilfields early in a campaign to prevent disputes over its control. But it will not be able to stop Kurds returning to the rest of the province. In the city also it would be embarrassing for US forces to hold back Kurds repossessing their homes.
The Kurdish leader denied he had given any assurance to the US he would not try to capture Kirkuk with his 62,000-strong army, but he added: “It is not our aim to take it militarily.” He said Turkomans and other ethnic groups expelled by Saddam Hussein would also go home – an important issue since Turkey says that defence of Turkoman rights is one reason why they would invade.
Kurdish commanders believe Kurds in Kirkuk province – assisted by returning refugees – will rise up as soon as the US invade. It is that which Baghdad is trying to pre-empt by searches and arrests. Asked if there might be an uprising in Kirkuk city, Zama Fathi said: ‘An uprising is impossible because most of the men have run away.”
Kurdish commanders in the front line north of Kirkuk province are circumspect about plans but everybody believes the struggle for Kirkuk will begin soon. Commander Nasrudin Mustafa, the leader of a force of Pesh Merga (Kurdish soldiers), all originally from the province, based at Qush Teppa said: “Many Arabs are preparing to leave. They have sent their heavy furniture home so it will be easy to escape.”