Commission tackles legacy of Saddam's Arabisation
July 8, 2004
By Jonathan Steele in Kirkuk
In a contest over who has Iraq's toughest job, Tahsin Hamid Yassin would be up there with the prime minister, the judge handling the Saddam Hussein trial, and the American commander of the 160,000 foreign troops based in Iraq.
Mr Yassin heads the property claims commission in Kirkuk, arguably Iraq's most volatile town, a place where there is ethnic tension and the threat of clashes.
Already the recipient of two death threats in the six weeks he has been in office, he has the delicate task of settling disputes which go to the heart of who has control of this oil-rich town, Arabs, Kurds or Turkomans.
"It's a heavy burden but I don't care about the threats," says Mr Yassin, who has several bodyguards outside his office on a street blocked against car bombers by concrete barriers.
Under Saddam Hussein tens of thousands of Kurds were driven out of the villages surrounding Kirkuk. The ruined foundations of their homes can be seen on the hills from the road which straddles the oil pipeline going north-east, symbols of thecordon sanitaire Saddam created between his territory and the autonomous Kurdish areas of northern Iraq.
To change Kirkuk's ethnic balance, he brought in an estimated 300,000 Arabs, mainly Shia Muslims from the south. "Some were given money to settle here, some who were in the Ba'ath party were ordered in, and others were part of the massive security apparatus," Mr Yassin says.
Himself a Kurd, Mr Yassin is a lawyer and technocrat, who remained in Iraq under Saddam working as a personnel officer and manager at the Iraq Petroleum Company.
The need to "remedy the injustice" of the Arabisation policy was spelt out in the interim constitution, which the US occupation authorities drew up with Iraq's governing council this spring. But Paul Bremer, the former US overlord, kicked the issue into touch by delaying a budget for the property commission.
Kurdish politicians on Kirkuk's council rounded on Mr Bremer when he visited the city last month on a farewell trip with Iraq's president, Ghazi al-Yawer. They warned they could not control the anger of displaced people much longer.
Several thousand displaced Kurds have set up a tented camp in Kirkuk's Shorja district. Others are in what was a sports stadium. They have built shacks on the edge of the pitch and under the terraces, with small brick walls to create privacy, fetid open sewers and metres of dangerous wiring leading illegally from lamp-posts along the main road.
As head of the property claims commission, Mr Yassin's initial task is to register claims. About 4,000 people have come in so far and he expects the number to increase dramatically as word spreads.
With 28 lawyers and 14 assistants he hopes to solve disputes by mediation or, if that fails, arbitration.
Occupants will be compensated from government funds if they can prove they spent money improving the properties Saddam's regime gave them.
Mr Yassin hopes Arabs with government jobs will be helped to get similar positions in the south so they can go home. But he recognises mediation may not work.
"Former Ba'athists have escaped from Kirkuk. They're afraid, so it's unlikely they'll come for mediation", he says. "If they don't, we'll announce it in the newspapers and after a set time, the case will go to a special court."
The court's main judge, a Kurd, sits with an Arab and a Turkoman. They can decide cases by a two-to-one majority. While the property claims mainly pit Arabs against Kurds, the Turkomans say they are being sidelined.
Each of the three communities claims it is the city's largest as well as oldest, and that the others settled in Kirkuk later. Arabs and Turkomans also say the Kurds in Shorja are not returning refugees but squatters sent from the north to inflate the census due next year.
"Kurdish militias entered Kirkuk with coalition forces last year and looted buildings and occupied offices," says Khuder Ghalib Karim, who heads the Turkoman caucus on the council.
He says the coalition-approved Kurdish police chief has put 2,700 members of the peshmerga, the Kurdish militia, into Iraqi police uniforms, who discriminate against other groups. Thousands of Turkoman villagers were also displaced under Saddam, he says, and have rebuilt their old homes since he was toppled. "Ninety per cent of the displaced Kurds were not from the city. They had mud houses outside, so why can't they rebuild them too? We don't want them in the city."
However fast the commission and the special court move, their case-by-case approach will inevitably take time. Kirkuk's politicians of all ethnicities want a quicker solution, even though they seem unable to break away from ethnic politics and stage constant walkouts from the council.
In an attempt to force consensus, the Americans have kept control of Kirkuk's purse strings. Shortly before leaving Iraq Mr Bremer set up the Kirkuk Foundation, a nominally private body, whose $100m (£53.8m) budget will come from the US. It's stated goal is "to lay down the foundations for ensuring long-term peace and prosperity in the province".
But all sides are impatient. "The situation in Kirkuk is unstable," Mr Karim says. "The peshmerga are unqualified and untrained, and this creates irritation. If there are clashes, this is the reason."
Hassib Rozbayani, a Kurdish council member, says: "We hope violence doesn't happen. It's very important that the displaced get a quick solution and the reversal of Arabisation happens soon."
And a western diplomat based in Kirkuk says: "Now that sovereignty has arrived, the key question is whether the Kurds make a major push. It's unlikely as long as the US military is here."
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004