Boundary between Iraq, Kurdish territory divides communities

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Posted: May 22, 2017 2:34 AM
Boundary between Iraq, Kurdish territory divides communities

ABU JARBUAH, Iraq (AP) — As Omar Rashad's combine clutters down the barley field in northern Iraq, the farmer shields his eyes from the scorching sun and points at the tall berm at the end of his land, just past a cluster of agricultural buildings.

The berm he points to marks the de facto border between federal Iraq and its self-governing Kurdish region in the north. It was built in November after Kurdish Peshmerga forces pushed about 5 kilometers (3 miles) into the Nineveh plains outside Mosul with the support of the U.S.-led coalition, retaking a cluster of towns and villages from the Islamic State group.

Now, more than half of Rashad's land, some 20 hectares (50 acres), is on the other side of the line in Iraqi federal territory. Crossing over to it is so complicated — requiring daily approval from both Iraqi and Kurdish authorities — that he has given up.

"This is our village and here is the berm. The berm divides our land into two halves," said Rashad, an Iraqi who fled to Kurdish territory when IS militants came to his town. "It's our land and we want to plant and harvest there. But now we can't. You can say that we lost that half."

Since 2014, Iraq's Kurds have expanded the territory they control by about half at the expense of Iraq. The status of some of these areas, such as the city of Kirkuk, is supposed to be decided by plebiscite under Iraq's constitution. Others, including most of the governorate of Nineveh, technically belong to Iraq.

The berm, with fortified positions every half kilometer (half mile) or so, cuts through the land in a fairly straight line, but it separates some communities from their land, from their administrative centers and from each other.

"If you want to do anything on the other side, you can't. The berm has paralyzed everything," Rashad said. "This is my land, my father's and grandfather's land, how can they divide our land like this?"

On the Iraqi side of the berm, in the village of Darawish, farmer Raad Khalil is faced with an additional problem. He, too, has lost access to land — about 8 hectares (20 acres) — leaving him dependent on aid. But he has also in effect been left without a government.

"All government functions are in Bashiqa," he said, referring to the biggest town in the area that is now on the Kurdish side of the line. "Health care, education, electricity. Now you have to go to Mosul for everything but then they tell you that we belong to Bashiqa and I must go there."

Crossing from Iraq into the Kurdish region is even more complicated than the other way around because the Peshmerga demand a Kurdish residency permit or a sponsor.

The berm separates these some small communities from themselves, though for now not everybody seems to mind. Arriving in Abu Jarbuah on the Iraqi side of the berm, Shamsaddeen Nouraddeen, a Kurd, said he had been given a day permit to come over for a relative's funeral.

He said he hoped the berm would eventually be removed but added that for now it made him feel safer because he was worried there were still IS sleeper cells in some of the villages on the Iraq side.

The situation is made more delicate by the fact that the inhabitants of these villages are a mix of Sunni and Shiite Shabaks, a Kurdish-speaking minority in northern Iraq. While most Shiite residents fled IS, many of the Sunnis stayed, and that sowed mistrust among the Shabaks.

Back on the Kurdish side of the berm, Omar Rashad, a Sunni Muslim, said he has gone back to his village once but some of his Shiite neighbors made it clear that he wasn't welcome. He was now wearing a pistol and two spare clips on his hip for personal security, he said.

"It's like cutting a person in half and that's exactly what happened to us," he said. "The Shabaks are a minority who have been damaged by all these rivalries. They have been divided into two as well."

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Associated Press writer Salar Salim contributed to this report from Darawish.