Ruins of homes in Kirkuk a sign of divisions to come in Iraq

AP News
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Posted: Dec 03, 2016 2:38 AM
Ruins of homes in Kirkuk a sign of divisions to come in Iraq

IRBIL, Iraq (AP) — All along the street, houses have been reduced to rubble in the central Iraqi city of Kirkuk. The work of Kurdish security forces retaliating against Sunni Arabs after a recent Islamic State group attack, residents say.

Kurdish security forces moved in with bulldozers and excavators and demolished at least 100 homes in the Huzeiran neighborhood of Kirkuk in the week after a deadly suicide bombing in October, according to residents interviewed by The Associated Press and a report by Human Rights Watch.

The destruction points to the dangerous divisions that threaten to burst out now that the IS "caliphate" appears on the verge of collapsing with the assault on its bastion Mosul further north.

Oil-rich Kirkuk, in northeastern Iraq, is a particular flashpoint: It is split between Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen populations, each of which have historically claimed it as its own. During the fight against IS, the Kurds seized control of the city and have said they will keep it, opening a likely dispute with the central government and the other local populations.

"This is my house and this is my tragedy," said one Arab resident of Huzeiran. The building that was once her family home now lies in ruin. She said Kurdish security forces came into the neighborhood, labelled her building "confiscated" and ejected her family. They also took their identification documents, she said, speaking on condition she only be identified by her nickname Umm Ahmed for fear of retaliation.

Associated Press video from the neighborhood showed dozens of destroyed buildings along several streets. New York-based Human Rights Watch documented at least 100 homes demolished there on October 23 and 24 by Kurdish security forces, displacing more than 300 families. Lying on the southern edge of Kirkuk proper, in addition to the neighborhood's residents, the area was also hosting mostly Sunni Arabs who fled villages around Kirkuk that were overrun by IS in 2014.

"We want to ask the joint forces and the government forces who demolished our houses, why they did it," said another Kirkuk resident whose house was destroyed and identity documents confiscated. He also asked to only be identified by a nickname Abu Abdullah due to concerns for his safety.

Kirkuk Governor Najmiddin Karim, a Kurd, has repeatedly denied in comments to Iraqi media that forcible displacements are taking place in the province. The Associated Press sought comment from Kurdish security officials and the governor but received no response.

But Rakan Said al-Jibouri, the deputy governor and head of the Arab council of Kirkuk, confirmed the destruction.

"We consider this wrongful behavior and a racist attack by the security forces and the political parties behind them," he told the AP. He said the destruction has forced many of Kirkuk's Arab residents to scatter, taking refuge with relatives.

The oil-rich city of Kirkuk is claimed by both Iraq's central government and the largely autonomous Kurdish region.

When IS overran Mosul and much of the north and pushed through central Iraq toward Baghdad in the summer of 2014, Kurdish security forces moved in and assumed full control of Kirkuk. They said the move was to protect it from IS after the collapse of the military. But Kurdish officials have said since that they will keep the city.

The October attack by the Islamic State group in Kirkuk came just a week after Iraqi forces launched the operation to retake Mosul. In a complex attack carried out by at least 100 fighters, gunmen and suicide bombers targeted different parts of Kirkuk nearly simultaneously, killing dozens. It took nearly 24 hours to subdue them.

Security officials in Kirkuk warned that the attack demonstrated the threat IS will likely pose long after Mosul falls.

Kurdish officials were quick to blame Sunni Arabs displaced from IS-held areas for the attack.

Kurdish authorities have previously been accused of "deliberate mass destruction" to Arab villages in Iraq's north, according to a January 2016 report from Amnesty International. The Amnesty report cited satellite images to support claims that Kurdish forces bulldozed, blew up and burned down thousands of homes in an effort to uproot Arab communities as revenge for their perceived support of IS.

Largely with the help of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, Kurdish forces fighting IS have taken territory that has expanded their recognized autonomous zone by 50 percent.

Al-Jibouri, Kirkuk's deputy governor, said destroying Arab villages and demolishing homes will likely stoke tensions between Iraq's Kurds and Arabs in the country's north and only lead to further violence. He said he had asked the parliament for compensation for those who lost their houses but so far had not received a response.

The destruction "will not serve the security or peaceful coexistence of the people of Kirkuk," he said.