New York Times
September 2, 2006
Iraqi Arabs See Unlikely Haven With Old Foes
By Edward Wong
SULAIMANIYA, Iraq — Along with a Ferris wheel and ice cream stands, the park at the heart of this Kurdish city has a monument listing the names of dozens of Kurds killed in a torture compound here by Saddam Hussein’s intelligence officers.
Yet, there was Sabah Abdul Rahman, a former intelligence officer, strolling just yards from the monument with his family on a recent evening.
Driven from Tikrit, Mr. Hussein’s hometown, by violence and their resentment of the American military, the family had arrived here that very day and found a $30-a-night apartment.
“This is the only safe place in all of Iraq,” said Mr. Abdul Rahman, himself a Sunni Arab, as children scampered around him. “There’s terrorism elsewhere and the presence of the Americans.”
With sectarian violence boiling over in much of Iraq, tens of thousands of Arab families are on the move, searching for a safe place to live. Surprisingly, given the decades of brutal Sunni Arab rule over the Kurdish minority and the continuing ethnic tensions, many like Mr. Abdul Rahman are settling in the secure provinces of Iraqi Kurdistan, run virtually as a separate country by the regional government.
The influx of Arabs has made many Kurds nervous, and regional leaders are debating whether to corral the Arabs into separate housing estates or camps.
“For the Kurdish people, it’s a sensitive issue,” said Asos Hardi, the editor of Awene, a newspaper that has run editorials in favor of segregating the Arab migrants. “Of course, everybody supports those people who have left their lands and their homes because of violence, but we don’t want it at the expense of giving up our land or changing the demographics of our land.”
Across Iraq, growing numbers of Arabs have been fleeing their hometowns in search of basic security. Outside Kurdistan, nearly 39,000 families have been uprooted by the Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence, a figure far higher than an estimate of 27,000 released by Iraqi officials in July, according to the Iraqi Ministry of Migration and Displacement. Families usually move from mixed areas to cities or neighborhoods where their sects dominate.
But some are choosing Iraqi Kurdistan even over sectarian enclaves in Baghdad and homogeneous cities like Falluja, for Sunnis, and Najaf, for Shiites. Besides having greater security, Kurdistan might appeal to more secular Arabs because the Kurds, who make up a fifth of Iraq, are often not religious conservatives.
Arabs moving to Kurdistan are required to register with security agencies, which track how many arrive and where they live. The chief security officer for Sulaimaniya, the largest city in eastern Kurdistan, said about 1,000 Arab families had moved into this area, and that thousands more families had settled in other parts of the Kurdish north. Most are Sunni Arabs, said the officer, Sarkawt Hassan Jalal.
Some Arab migrants here are poor laborers. Dozens can be seen sleeping every night outside the Qadir Mosque in downtown Sulaimaniya. But many migrants come from the professional class — doctors, engineers and professors.
Also among them are members of the ousted Baath Party and former security or intelligence officers like Mr. Abdul Rahman, who may be fleeing persecution by other Iraqis or arrest by American soldiers.
“We know the parents of families who come here are Baathists, but they’re allowed to live in Sulaimaniya if they have a Kurdish sponsor,” said Muhammad Bayer Arif, the principal of the Jawahiri School, the only primary school in the city where classes are taught in Arabic. Enrollment has jumped to more than 1,500 for this school year from 1,250 last year.
Many Kurds are not as sanguine as Mr. Arif. They are all too aware of the bitter history of Arab rule over the Kurds, which was brought to the fore in late August when Mr. Hussein and six aides began to stand trial on charges of killing at least 50,000 Kurds and annihilating 2,000 villages in a 1988 military campaign.
Some Kurds fear that the Arab migrants will bring with them suicide bombers. In addition, the arrival of middle-class Arabs has driven up rental costs of homes by as much as 50 percent, Kurdish officials say.
Some Kurds also say the wave of migration evokes Mr. Hussein’s “Arabization” policy, in which he moved Arabs into Kurdish territory and expelled more than 100,000 Kurds in order to change the demographics of the region, especially around the Kirkuk oil fields.
“This will be another form of Arabization,” said Mr. Hardi, the newspaper editor.
Anwar Abu Bakr Muhammad, a schoolteacher chatting with friends in the city’s main square, said: “If they’re separated from us and live in their own camp, there won’t be any problems. We don’t want the same violence that exists elsewhere in Iraq to take place here.”
But, to some those fears seem unfounded. “Until now, there’s been no problem,” said Mr. Jalal, the security official, when asked about the possibility of suicide bombers and other violence.
Many of the Arabs praise the hospitality of the Kurds. “The people are very good to us, and we have more freedom here,” said Mr. Abdul Rahman, the former intelligence officer. “There are no Americans. Tikrit is very bad — there are mass arrests, curfews, no services, no electricity.”
He and his wife, who is half-Kurdish, brought along their two children and Rusol, a young girl whose father was arrested by the Americans after the invasion. No one knows his fate. Rusol’s older sister died of “crying and too much depression,” Mr. Abdul Rahman said.
“We moved here to find a doctor for this girl,” he said as Rusol cracked a shy smile.
On this late summer evening, there were many other Arabs gathered in Freedom Park.
A young woman in a red blouse stepped off a dizzying ride of whirling swings. She and a girlfriend had just been screaming their heads off. The woman, Arij Abdul Qadir, said she moved here recently from a Shiite slum in Baghdad with her husband, their children and her sister.
The husband found work as a hotel receptionist, so the family has free lodging. Ms. Abdul Qadir, 30, said one of the biggest boons was the relative abundance of electricity — Sulaimaniya usually has 15 hours a day, while Baghdad sputters along with 6.
“There’s no life, no electricity, no security in Baghdad,” she said. “We’ll stay here as long as there’s no security. When there’s security, we’ll go back.”
Ms. Abdul Qadir said she had learned a few words of Kurdish, and she had enrolled some of her children in the Jawahiri School, the elementary school where lessons are taught in Arabic.
Over at the school, the principal, Mr. Arif, said the surge in enrollment had strained his resources. By the time classes start in mid-September, there could be as many as 1,700 students, Mr. Arif said. With only 12 classrooms, the school plans to run two shifts a day.
Enrollment has also soared at the two intermediate schools in Sulaimaniya that teach in Arabic.
That has raised concerns among Arab parents like Naseer al-Yasiri, a construction manager from Baghdad who recently enrolled two children in the schools.
“How will they teach all those students?” he said as he sat in a trailer on a construction site at the city outskirts. A television was tuned to the genocide trial of Saddam Hussein.
Kurdish neighbors recently invited the family on an overnight trip to a mountain resort. The children have frolicked at Freedom Park and at the Azmar Hotel, perched high in the hills above the city. “They were like birds freed from a cage,” Mr. Yasiri said.
“Of course I miss Baghdad,” he added. “But when you see it now, it’s a ghost city. Who’s left there? Terrorists?”
Yerevan Adham contributed reporting for this article.