August 2, 2004

Iraq: "Arabization" Fallout

Today, Human Rights Watch criticized the US-led coalition for not resolving the problems of the Saddam-era "Arabization" program (ta'rib / T"RIB).

There are numerous comments one could make about this, so I'll take the cheap shot first - there is no US-led coalition anymore....

I agree wholeheartedly that the Arabization project was ethnic cleansing. It was targeted against the Kurds, as well as the Assyrians and Turkomans. Saddam, true B'athi that he was, had no use for ethnic divisions in Iraq. He truly believed that Iraq should be Iraqi - not Arab and Kurd, not Muslim and Christian, not Sunni and Shi'a, not Assyrian and Arab, etc. In an attempt to rid the country of its largest (and most troublesome) ethnic group, Saddam began the Arabization program with them. In the 1970s, entire Kurdish villages in the north were exchanged with entire Arab (mostly Shi'a - coincidence?) villages in the south. So, you take Arabs used to living in the arid southern deserts or marshes and forcibly move them to the Colorado-like climate of the north. Conversely, you take Kurds from their traditional mountain villages and move them to the south.

Many Kurds (as well as Assyrians and Turkomans) were forced to move from the cities of Mosul (Al-Mawsil) and Kirkuk, while Arabs were moved into their homes. After the fall of Saddam, the Arabs were not anxious to return to the volatile south. On the other hand, the Kurds could not return fast enough. You know the problem - Kurdish family shows up and wants its family home back. Arab family, through no fault of its own, is living there, has lived there for maybe 30 years, and does not want to leave. There is no real legal system in place, and most of these Arab and Kurdish families fall into that gray zone between a Saddam-ruled Iraq and now.

This is a tricky problem for the new government. As early as 1995-1996 while running around northern Iraq, I saw many abandoned villages and asked why no one lived in these serviceable buildings. The answer was usually a derisive snort and the guttural spitting, "ta'rib." No Kurd would live there. I replied that these were usable buildings, decent facilities, but it fell on deaf ears. Hatred often supercedes reason.

Human Rights Watch (and I usually have no problems with them - they liked my book; see, has blamed the now-defunct coalition for not addressing this problem.

They wrote:

"If these property disputes are not addressed as a matter of urgency, rising tensions between returning Kurds and Arab settlers could soon explode into open violence," said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division.

Okay, we all know where I stand when it comes to the Kurds, but I do not want to over-romanticize them. Many of the villages in the Kurdish area could use some cleaning, some paint, some hygiene, etc. That said, while they may have their problems among themselves - the PUK and KDP divide, for example - they are cohesive when dealing with the Arabs (except for that 1996 KDP-Iraqi lash-up against the PUK). If the Arabs trying to move back into Mosul and Kirkuk want to get violent, I will give you fair odds on who comes out on top. I have rarely seen quiet courage like that of the Kurds; no complaints, just commitment to their cause, which over the years has usually been a losing one. No bragging, no excuses, no apologies - they have a fatalistic dignity that you cannot help respect. On more than one occasion, I have had a Kurd peshmerga move in front of me to try to shield me from hostile fire. I am not alone - all of us who served with the Kurds feel this way about them. (Getting on soapbox now: They are the third largest ethnic group in the Middle East; they are the largest ethnic group in the world without a homeland. I doubt they will ever have a homeland; geopolitical realities are against them. Falling off soapbox now.)

The Assyrians - Christians composed of both Syriacs, Chaldeans and Nestorians - have their own hurdles to face. They have come under attack, including this week's coordinated five bombings in Baghdad and Mosul, by the Az-Zarqawi faction of Al-Qa'idah. When I was in northern Iraq, we would often visit the nearby Assyrian (Christian) village of Shaqlawah - they had a church and decent wine. The elders there were always concerned that a post-Saddam Iraqi government would be anti-Christian. Having spent time in the mixed societies of Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, I tended to dismiss their concerns - I may have been a bit naive. I am surprised at the level of Islamic sentiment that is manifesting itself in Iraq. During all of my time in Saddam-controlled Iraq and the Kurdish area, I never felt any Islamic sentiment. Bars and nightclubs were in full swing - the Iraqis have a reputation for being hard-drinking party-goers. Perhaps this is a backlash; time will tell.

The resettlement issue is a real problem, created by years of Saddam Husayn's attempts to eliminate Kurdish influence and attempts at autonomy. It is a problem that needs addressed - I just am not sure we are the best adjudicators here.