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U.S. Caught in Middle of Battle for Homes

Times Staff Writer

The hovel that Hakim Osman calls home doesn’t look like much to fight over, with its cement floors, broken windows and a neighborhood that crackles with tension and gunfire.

But eight years after being evicted by Saddam Hussein’s regime for the offense of being an ethnic Kurd, Osman weeps with gratitude for the U.S. invasion that toppled the Iraqi leader and sent Arab squatters fleeing to escape retribution.

“We prayed to God for liberation and he sent us the Americans,” the old man said. “Now we pray to the Americans. They are our saviors, second only to God.”

U.S. troops struggling to keep the peace in this roiling city in northern Iraq are confronted daily with violent attempts to undo the damage of Hussein’s “Arabization” of Kirkuk -- and with the victims’ assumption that their stolen properties will be returned as legitimate spoils of the war.

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By urging displaced Iraqis to be patient in sorting out who owns what in the wake of Hussein’s ethnic engineering, U.S. officers are coming to realize that their invasion and alliance with Iraq’s minority Kurds has created some dangerously misguided expectations.

Kurds such as Osman and his family see the violent clashes over property here as a natural, if nasty, means of reversing decades of demographic tampering that made this once-Kurdish city primarily Arab.

To U.S. troops, the nightly raids by now-displaced Arabs into the homes reoccupied by Kurds is a messy legal problem best adjudicated when Iraq’s courts and civil services are working again.

To officials in the de facto state of Kurdistan, who aspire to control Kirkuk once the fractured country is reunited in a new federation, reversing Hussein’s ethnic manipulations is an essential prerequisite to laying territorial claim to the city that is Iraq’s biggest oil producer.

To refugees, the shabby homes in warrens of muddy and sewer-flanked alleys are the touchstones that reassure them of their place in the community and the nation and safeguard their history and future.

When 73-year-old Osman, his wife, crippled son and orphaned granddaughter returned after the fall last month of Hussein’s Baath Party, they had recovered nothing less than their identities, lost during the eight years they wandered from ruined house to reluctant kinsmen.

“I kissed the ground here, I was so happy,” said Osman’s wife, Jamra, pointing to a spot on the broken concrete slab covering their courtyard. “I would kiss the tires of the U.S. trucks and the dirt the soldiers drive on.”

Here and in other areas, U.S. soldiers have sought to prevent the displaced from retaking their property by force of arms. It is an intervention that has confused and angered those, especially Kurds, who believe they are invoking a right of restitution for which the war was fought.

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“It’s tough to tell people to be patient who don’t have a place to live. But the main thing we have to do is stop the violence,” said Maj. Rob Gowan, spokesman for the U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade, which entered Kirkuk on April 10 and has been fighting to restore order since then.

The brigade’s commander, Col. William Mayville, conceded the U.S. may have unwittingly given Kurds the impression that “because they fought with us, that what they were fighting for has been sanctioned by us.”

That is an impression that extends far beyond the contested slums of this city. In Irbil and Sulaymaniyah, the dual Kurdish capitals that absorbed and cared for as many as 250,000 Kurds expelled from Kirkuk and its surrounding villages over the last 40 years, officials say the Americans should resolve the disputes immediately or butt out.

“The regime that expelled them doesn’t exist anymore, and neither they nor I understand why they can’t go back,” said Nasreen Mustafa Sideek, minister for reconstruction and development for a portion of Kurdistan. “Emotions are boiling, and if the problem isn’t dealt with, it will create a dangerous situation for the Americans as well as the Iraqis.”

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She insisted that the restoration of property to rightful owners in northern Iraq is about justice, not oil. Once the expulsions are reversed, Kurdistan and the rest of the nation should be able to come to some fair distribution of the region’s natural resources that belong to all Iraqis, she said.

Many Arabs resettled by Hussein into Kurdish houses have fled for fear of the armed clashes that consume the eastern suburbs of Kirkuk each night, driving women, children and the elderly inside their homes as armed youths chase off returning squatters. Three men were killed in fighting Sunday, one an advisor to U.S. forces who was trying to calm down fellow Kurds.

Kurdish leaders, such as Deputy Prime Minister Sami Abdul Rahman in Irbil, worry that the American troops running Kirkuk fail to grasp the importance of quickly righting Hussein’s efforts, which were aimed at shifting the ethnic balance away from Kurds and to the benefit of his Arab regime.

“The most pressing, heartfelt problem for all Kurds is this Arabization. It is a knife in our hearts, and nothing hurts more than to continue to suffer from this despotism,” Abdul Rahman said.

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He criticized U.S. troops for halting the return of Kurds to Kirkuk and elsewhere, arguing that by intervening they encouraged Arabs to return and reoccupy Kurdish property. Ensuing disputes put U.S. forces in the uncomfortable role of having to mete out frontier justice.

“We have to intervene in some cases to defuse a flash point,” Mayville said of his troops encountering standoffs over housing while out on patrol. “When you’ve got a lady and her kids against a bunch of guys with AK-47s, we’re going to go with her nine times out of nine.”

The ad hoc decisions, which the colonel insisted are temporary fixes until a legal review committee can be assembled, incense the civic leaders of whichever side loses.

Some figures who plan to run for city council seats at a leadership convention this weekend say they realize the issue won’t be settled overnight.

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“We understand that the regime left problems that won’t be solved in a day or even a month,” said Kemal Kirkuki, a physician and member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of the two main Kurdish parties. But he called the property claims of the expelled “the most critical point that needs to be addressed first.”

The Baath Party’s demographic fiddling did not leave much proof that Arabs had illegally ousted Kurds or other ethnic groups. The regime often forced evicted Kurds to sign statements that they were willingly leaving their homes. The property often was sold to Arabs, providing official documentation to the new owners.

Then there are those who didn’t own the homes they were kicked out of, the poorest of the poor with neither hope nor legal recourse.

Nasreen Ali Salih carries the tragic story of her family’s expulsion in a plastic sandwich bag, creased and cloudy from being in her constant grip. The expulsion order in her bag describes in numbing bureaucratic detail what she was allowed to take into Kurdistan: 12 children, a bed and blankets, three gas canisters, an oven and a box of pots.

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“I was expelled because two of my sons deserted the Iraqi army,” said the 43-year-old, whose husband and older children are now in Kirkuk seeking jobs and shelter. She, the youngest three and her handicapped 13-year-old daughter, stayed behind in a mud-walled hut at the Binaslawa refugee camp east of Irbil that has been their sorry refuge for nearly three years.

Abdulbaqi Osman Abdullah, fired from his North Oil Co. job in an earlier wave of repression against Kurds, was forced to sell his home and grocery store when Baath Party members expelled his family two years ago.

“Kirkuk is my home and I want to spend the rest of my life there,” said the 58-year-old father of five. “If a fair government is seated, they will allow us to return home ....If they can’t give us a house, we will be satisfied with a tent.”


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