A housing project in Diyala Province, sandwiched between Baghdad and the Iranian border, could raise tension between Arabs and Kurds, observers say.
The local authorities in Diyala have approved the construction of residential units for 3,000 Arab families forced out of their homes in the predominantly Kurdish town of Khanaqin (in the northeastern part of the province) after the 2003 US-led invasion.
“I see no solution to the existing Arab-Kurd dispute, but it [the project] will further set the stage for more complications,” Saleem Jabir Hassan, a Baghdad-based analyst with The Peace Journal, a local weekly, told IRIN.
He said the move could lead to increased tension between Arabs and Kurds. “If this works then it will encourage other areas to do the same, and maybe it will culminate in forcing Arab families to move to such complexes.”
However, some analysts, like Munaf Abdullah Qassim, a lecturer at the University of Karbala, welcomed the move.
“There was Arabization in all Kurdish areas… There must be a fair solution for those Kurds who lost their homes and land, and help must be given to Arabs to help them find other places… This is one of the solutions,” Qassim said.
The Diyala authorities were recently approached by some Swiss companies to build 3,000 residential units for poor families in the province.
We accepted the offer and allocated land for the project, Diyala Governor Abdul-Nassir Al-Mahdawi told IRIN.
He said priority would be given to some 3,000 displaced Arab families forced from their homes in Khanaqin by Kurds who said the town should be part of their northern self-ruled region of Kurdistan.
Khanaqin is predominantly Kurdish, while most people in Diyala Province are Arabs.
As part of its “Arabization” policy, Saddam Hussein’s regime drove tens of thousands of Kurds and non-Arabs from northern areas in the 1980s and 1990s, replacing them with Arabs from the impoverished south.
The Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) said in a 4 March report that after 2003 thousands of displaced Kurds, Turkomans and others began returning to the north, and Arabs were forcibly displaced.
According to a November 2009 report by The Brookings Institution - University of Bern Project on Internal Displacement entitled Resolving Iraqi Displacement: Humanitarian and Development Perspectives - before the 2003 conflict the displaced were estimated at one million, two-thirds in the north, and a third mainly in the south.
“There was a demographic change when some tribes were brought by Saddam Hussein to Khanaqin to Arabize it. Since 2003 the Kurds have forced them out of their homes and they are living now in [former military] camps and abandoned government buildings,” Al-Mahdawi said.
Meanwhile, observers have warned that rising tensions over disputed territory in northern Iraq could trigger further displacement, the IDMC report said.