Iraq's Forgotten Population - Boston Globe
ERBIL, Iraq. TENSIONS ON the border between Iraq and Turkey - the two main US allies in the Muslim world - escalate. In the fall there were frequent cross-frontier clashes between Turkish soldiers and rebels from the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the PKK, based in northern Iraq. This month the Turkish military used helicopters and warplanes against their positions.
Until now the reports from the field were played up by the Turkish side - eager to show that it is being tough on a group that Turkey (and the United States) consider terrorist - and played down by the Kurdish (and Iraqi/US) side, where there is no interest in fueling another conflict in Iraq. But more air raids may change the atmosphere.
Here in Erbil and throughout the Kurdish regional government, this border conflict is largely ignored. Indeed it is easy to forget that Erbil is in Iraq. A different flag is flown here, the defense is assured by the celebrated Peshmerga, or Kurdish freedom fighters, and people speak a different language. The telephone country code is the Iraqi 964 but the mobile phone system - Korek - is limited to northern Iraq, although the company plans to reach Baghdad soon. Only the currency is the same as in Baghdad.
The talk of the town here is not of skirmishes in the mountains but of real estate prices, development projects, and contracts signed with foreign oil companies.
The Dec. 31 deadline for the referendum on the status of the city of Kirkuk - which is claimed by both Kurds and Arabs - was just postponed for six months, but there is not much concern about that either.
Kirkuk, about 60 miles south of Erbil, had changed from Kurdish to Arab dominance when Saddam Hussein had Kurds expelled or killed and some 90,000 Arabs settled in their place to strengthen Arab control of the oil-rich area. Under the "normalization" of Kirkuk called for in Iraq's 2005 constitution, Kurds returning to the city would get plots of land and about $8,200 while Arabs who agree to leave the city would get plots of land in their place of origin and about $16,400. Kirkuk's oil would mean prosperity for Iraqi Kurdistan but the semiautonomous government in Erbil wants more "normalization" to happen before the ethnic composition of the disputed territory is determined in a census.
"You see, we are re-doing Kurdistan," Taksin Ibrahim Farhad, deputy principal in a primary school in Erbil, explained when I asked about this ethnic reengineering. Farhad is a Kurd, and his own story - he was twice a refugee in Iran - is closely linked with the story of Iraqi Kurdistan.
With the oddly out-of-place background noise of joyful children playing during recess, Farhad informed me about the 1970s Arabization of the Kurdish lands, which involved everything from limiting the use of the Kurdish language to forced deportation, the killing of Kurds, and the bulldozing of their villages. It was what we now call "ethnic cleansing." In 1988, Hussein committed genocide against the Kurds in the Anfal campaigns, the only known instance of chemical weapons used by a state against its own citizens.
As bitter as this history is, Farhad still chooses to teach in a school where the language of instruction is Arabic, one of only six such primary schools in Kurdistan, and the most prestigious of them. With no resentment toward Arabs, Farhad is proud to teach Arab children (many of whose parents fled the mayhem in other parts of the country) in their own language and Kurdish children in a language that was either imposed on them by the now-gone dictator or chosen for cultural reasons by their parents.
But for the school to succeed in its well-meaning mission it will need enormous support, human and technical alike. Before the wave of population displacement triggered by the bombing of the Samarra mosque in February 2006, which sent both Arabs and Kurds into Kurdistan, the school had 750 pupils. Now it has 1,700.
The United Nations refugee agency says 800,000 internally displaced persons are in northern Iraq. Given the cultural differences and the stormy history of relations, when Arabs flee to Kurdistan their predicament is like that of refugees who flee abroad. International law distinguishes between refugees who escape to another country, and internally displaced persons, who flee to other parts of their own country. In theory, international law protects refugees, whereas internally displaced persons are a problem to be solved by their own country.
Members of most nongovernmental organizations who work in Erbil do not make the distinction of refugees versus internally displaced persons. We simply help civilians - innocent victims of the Iraqi conflict - by training healthcare workers, setting up medical centers, distributing water tanks or building extra classrooms for the swollen number of pupils. It is the duty of the international community and the government of Iraq to allocate adequate resources to support these critical assistance programs.