<!img src="gfx/titlephoto2.jpg" width=470 height=300 alt=")" border="0">
The Kurdish return
Margaret Evans, CBC Radio | March 17, 2004
Since the war in Iraq was officially declared over on May 1, 2003, tens of thousands of Iraqi Kurds have returned to lands they once occupied in the north of the country.
In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein ordered a brutal campaign that drove hundreds of thousands of Kurds off the land and into collective villages, into exile, or worse.
But critics say the returning Kurds are now forcing out Arabs who were brought in by Saddam to resettle the area Arabs who have now been on the land for two decades.
Much of the tension is centred on the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, long considered the heart
and soul of the Kurdish people.
Today the landscape has a scorched feel to it. Huge flames leap out of pipelines that ring the city and giant plumes of black smoke linger in the sky. It's not pretty to look at but this is the city the Kurds call the "Jewel of Kurdistan."
Zena Karim Muhammed has a view of the oilfields just beyond the squalor of the refugee camp where she and her family now live, and the potential they represent for her people.
Saddam Hussein's right-hand man Ali Hassan al-Majid better known as Chemical Ali forced Muhammed's family and hundreds of other Kurds out of their neighbourhood back in the 1980s.
They've spent years as refugees and returned to Kirkuk in search of their home as soon as the war ended. They found a gas station in its place.
"This is my life in here, in Kirkuk," says Muhammed. "I spend all my life here and I have a lot of memories. That's why I cannot leave it."
On the other side of the city, Hamid al Gowa is trying to hang on to his home. He's an Arab. He came home one day after the war to find the word "girawa" painted on the front door. It means "it's taken" a message from the Kurds who lived here before.
"I won't leave," he says. "This is my house. I decided to die here because I have no other house in all of Iraq. Where will I go if someone pushes me out?"
Al Gowa has 10 children. They're among the thousands of Arabs brought in by Saddam to replace the thousands of Kurds he'd pushed out as part of a recolonization plan.
But that Arab community has now been here for decades.
"It's (been) a long time," al Gowa says. "The (Arabs are) now linked to the city and building the city. If they decide to stay here, why not? We don't need to push any people again by force just like Saddam (did)."
Ismail al Aboudi runs an employment agency in Kirkuk. He accuses the Kurds of laying down foundations that will better their chances of claiming the city for their own in the future.
He says the Kurds who administer the city are discriminating against Arabs. Instead of employing Arabs, they're bringing in workers from the Kurdish provinces to the east.
"(They are) hiring more people just from Kurdish Sulaymaniyah, and transferring to Kirkuk," says Aboudi. "This a bad way. (They're) looking out just for the Kurds not for all of people here. This is maybe make a problem here. Just like a bomb."
Paul Harvey heads the Coalition Authority in Kirkuk. He admits there are problems but says there's a tendency to exaggerate.
"I think there are tensions here, potentially it is a time bomb," he says. But "I don't hear it ticking.
"There is a perception, within the Arab and the Turkoman communities, that the Kurds are taking over everything. I think that this is a misperception. The reality is that a large number of Kurdish people are moving back into this province and that will continue.
"Remember that many thousands of people, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people, were displaced from the area under Saddam. They have the right to return," he says.
The coalition is looking at ways of compensating both Arabs and Kurds for lost property
perhaps from a special fund created from oil revenue. But it's not clear if that will be enough for the Kurds.
They've already enjoyed more than a decade of de facto independence in their autonomous enclave. Now they've extended their reach beyond those borders in the hopes of winning permanent control of the lands they lost under Saddam. For them, it's justice.
Back in the refugee camp, if you ask people about the future of the Kurds they give the same answer that they'll take their place in a federal Iraq, for now. But they're biding their time. The dream of an independent Kurdistan is far from dead and the city of Kirkuk and the scorched land that surrounds it lie at its heart.