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Tit-for-Tat Kurds Reverse Saddam's 'Ethnic Cleansing' - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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KHANAQIN, Iraq (AFP) — For Iraqi Kurdish mathematics teacher Mohammed Aziz, two wrongs can make a right. After decades of forced exile by the Baath party of Saddam Hussein, he is back with a vengeance.

Aziz was just four years old in 1975 when his family was evicted from Bawaplawi village, near the northern city of Khanaqin, and Arab settlers grabbed their home.

Now schoolteacher Aziz is back and has done to the Arabs what they did to him.

“Our homes were taken over by the Arabs without paying us any compensation,” Aziz, 37, said at the modest single-storey brick house which he has occupied since the fall of Saddam’s regime in 2003.

“We moved in and took any house that was empty. The Arabs who were here had fled.”

Saddam’s “Arabisation” campaign sought to change the demography of Khanaqin, which originally had a vast majority of Kurds and a smaller minority of Shiite Arabs, Turkmen and Jews.

With the fall of Saddam’s regime, the Kurds are back and the Arabs are nowhere to be seen, at least in Khanaqin.

“Ninety percent of the people who were forced out of Khanaqin have returned,” said the city’s mayor, Mohammed Mala Hassan, 52. “I want the others to return too, but I have no money to provide them with the basic facilities.”

Kurds such as Aziz did not depend on handouts from the authorities and instead took the land that was hastily abandoned by the Arabs. For Aziz, it is a case of correcting an injustice done more than three decades ago.

“What they did was wrong in taking our homes. We also just took the empty houses, but that is because our houses were taken in the same way in 1975,” he told AFP during a tour of Khanaqin and his village.

Inside his home is the tricolour — red white and green — of the peshmerga, the Kurdish security forces, which somehow seems to give him the authority to live in it.

He said the area is safe and has not seen the violence that has afflicted other parts of Iraq because of the peshmerga presence.

Most of the dwellings in the village are mud huts, with only a few made out of bricks, and they are built in walled compounds.

Khanaqin, which is close to the Iranian border, has emerged as a new flashpoint because of its untapped oil wealth and proximity to the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq.

Khanaqin mayor wants his region, which includes 175 villages, to be attached to the KRG and break away from the authority of the restive Iraqi province of Diyala where the majority are Arabs.

Aziz said he was forced to teach his subject in Arabic at a school in the Shiite majority province of Babil where they were forced to settle by the previous regime.

“I am happy to be back here because I can now educate my three children in Kurdish,” he said, pointing to two boys aged 10 and seven years and a girl of one. “I am happy to see my land.”

The highway from the Iraqi capital Baghdad to Khanaqin is regarded as one of the most dangerous because of the regular roadside bomb attacks, landmine explosions and ambushes by Al-Qaeda-led insurgents.

On the highway, Iraqi soldiers have their camps on hilltops with checkposts at regular intervals.

While returning from Khanaqin, the Iraqi soldiers manning the checkpoints ask motorists their destination and starting point. The questioning underscores ethnic tensions in the region.

On Sunday morning, the Kurdish mayor of the nearby Saadiyah town, Ahmad al-Zarqushi, was wounded in a roadside bomb attack, police Major Shriko Baajilan said, adding that six of his men were also wounded.

A peshmerga member died on Saturday when Iraqi police raided a peshmerga security post in the nearby town of Jalawla, a spokesman for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan told AFP.

An Iraqi security official said police targeted a cell of the peshmerga secret service known as Asayish.

The effects of Saddam’s “Arabisation” have been rapidly undone by the Kurds. But this has sparked new tensions with Baghdad, particularly over peshmerga influence in the region.

Talks are under way between Kurdish leaders and the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to end simmering tensions between federal forces and the peshmerga.

However, the Khanaqin mayor said his town is an oasis of peace compared with other areas of Iraq. He said there had been less than a handful of attacks in the past five years.

Fighters from Al-Qaeda have failed to penetrate Khanaqin because of the peshmerga, unlike in the rest of Diyala, considered one of the last strongholds of the jihadists.

Khanaqin, with around 250,000 people, is one of about 40 regions claimed by competing ethnic sects after the US-invasion.

The stakes in Khanaqin have risen because of high oil prices as well as its fertile land, where the agricultural economy started flourishing in the early 1970s when the city was known for its tomatoes and pomegranates.

Aziz sees a brighter future for his children and said the events of the past five years add up to a free Khanaqin that will be part of Kurdistan. “That is what my ancestors also wanted.”

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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