KIRKUK, Iraq – Years after they were dispossessed under Saddam Hussein, Kurds are taking what they say is rightfully theirs, evicting Iraqi Arabs and seizing their homes in northern Iraq.
"We're homeless," complained Sadi Qader Muhammad, whose family was ordered out of their four-room house by a group of Kurds in this largely Kurdish city. "For years, we've worked hard from morning until night, and getting kicked out of our home is the fruit of our labor."
The new Kurdish occupants took over the house in the days of confusion immediately after the April 10 collapse of Baghdad's authority in Kirkuk. They claim the land was theirs before Saddam evicted them in the 1980s.
"It was our land," said Khader Rashid Rahim, a trader who plans to move his wife and seven children to this house. "Years ago, three of my brothers were killed by Saddam's government. They took all of our property and forcibly moved us away."
Of all the legacies of Saddam's years of rule, none might be quite so difficult and explosive as his removal of ethnic minorities from oil-rich areas. Years ago, Saddam intensified a long-standing Baghdad policy of Arabization by evicting thousands of Kurds living in the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul and handing their property over to Arabs from other parts of Iraq.
An estimated 400,000 Kurds were displaced from Kirkuk. Many ended up in refugee camps and dedicated their lives to retrieving their lost property.
Longtime residents of Kirkuk say the neighborhood called Qadasia was once an agricultural district owned by Kurdish landlords. But the Arab residents of Qadasia, mostly civil servants who took advantage of cash incentives Saddam offered them to move here in the 1980s, say they had no idea the land had ever been owned by anyone.
"No Kurdish people were displaced from this neighborhood," said Seyed Aqel Musawi, a Qadasia neighborhood leader. "This was a no-man's land."
Kurds have long vowed to return to their lost lands and homes once Kirkuk was freed. Kurdish leaders have sought to assure the United States and Arab countries that the process of return will be a lawful one.
"We have always said that the right of return for the victims of ethnic cleansing is a sacred right," said Barham Salih, prime minister of the autonomous Kurdish enclave. "The return of displaced people has to be done through an orderly process, hopefully, an international process, that will take into consideration the rights of all the communities of Kirkuk."
But Arabs claim the Kurds have been taking the law into their own hands. Musawi — speaking at a noisy meeting of Sunni, Shiite and Christian Arab residents of Qadasia — voiced a litany of complaints, alleging there have been Kurdish reprisals against the Arab neighborhood.
They complained that Kurds claiming to belong to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan or the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the two main factions governing the autonomous Kurdish section of northern Iraq, had looted their homes, taken their weapons and fired shots at their houses.
Their biggest complaint was the taking of houses — three so far in the neighborhood — by armed men who spray-paint the word "girow," Kurdish for "taken," on homes they have occupied.
"If this humiliation against us continues, we are going to defend our properties and our homes ourselves," Musawi said.
Kirkuk's Arabs say the quick takeover of the city's municipal government and the police department by the Sulaymaniyah-based Kurdish government has made them vulnerable. Armed men claiming to belong to either of the two Kurdish parties have set up makeshift command posts all over the city.
"We are asking the Kurdish political parties to leave our neighborhoods, as one of our sons may bomb their offices," Musawi said.
Asked to show proof that he owned the property, Rahim admitted he had no documents. "They destroyed all of our papers," he said. "It's just our land."
One Wednesday, the two families claiming ownership of the house stood in its front courtyard in the cold rain. Sadi Qader Muhammad, a Arab mother of six, wept as her husband, Qassem Muhammad Bamed, removed clothes from the house.
Bamed, a grammar school teacher, said he left the house to go to the countryside during the war, returning April 14 to find it had been taken, with "girow" scrawled on the front.
Rahim, wearing the beige wool outfit of the Kurdish peshmerga warrior, said he realizes Bamed and his family might not have known that the land had belonged to someone else when they moved there 16 years ago.
"Let him come live with me," Rahim said, "side by side."