- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 22, 2002

BENASLAWA, Iraq Iraqi police went to Mohammed Osman's home in Kirkuk, northern Iraq, in May 1996, and gave him a choice: Renounce his Kurdish ethnicity or leave town.
Mr. Osman, who in the past managed to buy time with a $60 bribe, could not afford it anymore and chose to leave.
Mr. Osman came to this refugee camp, where 100 families from Kirkuk have fled what they call the "Arabization" of the city. They are among tens of thousands of Kurds, Turkomans and Assyrians who have had to leave Kirkuk for one reason: They aren't Arabs.
Kirkuk is a center of oil and agriculture and is of prime strategic importance for northern Iraq. Since the founding of the Iraqi state after World War I, Arab-controlled governments in Baghdad have been expelling non-Arabs in an effort to solidify control, say non-Arabs and international human rights groups.
In 1999, the government introduced a new policy of "nationality correction," under which non-Arabs are asked to change their ethnicity on identity cards and census documents or leave.
Mr. Osman said he knows of only a handful of people in Kirkuk who have accepted the offer. "We are Kurds. We refuse to be Arabs," he said.
Those who do change their ethnicity still face discrimination. They are not allowed to hold top jobs in the government or oil industry and may have to adopt Arabic names. In a perverse twist, some are punished for having "incorrectly" declared their Kurdishness in the first place, according to some Kurds who have left the area.
In Kirkuk, there is no education in Kurdish, and the only media source in Kurdish is a two-hour daily television program of propaganda from Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party.
"When we were in Kirkuk, they forbade Kurds from owning houses or cars or marrying Arab girls. If we wanted to have a car, we had to register it in an Arab's name," said Azad Ali, who was kicked out of Kirkuk as a high school student in 1996 and is now a soldier living in the Benaslawa camp.
According to a report by two French human rights groups in 2001, Kurds in Kirkuk are subject to "harassment, intimidation, arrests, torture and expulsion."
"As long as the Ba'ath party is in power in Baghdad, I don't want to go back [to Kirkuk]," Mr. Osman said.
Since 1991, the three northernmost Iraqi provinces have been administered by the Kurdistan regional government, protected from Saddam Hussein's rule by U.S. and British enforcement of a no-fly zone. The Benaslawa camp lies in this area, just outside Kurdistan's capital, Erbil.
Two more largely Kurdish provinces are still controlled by Baghdad, including the province of Kirkuk.
The Erbil-based Committee for Confronting Arabization in Kurdistan estimates that since the 1960s, 190,000 people have been expelled from Kirkuk province into Dohuk and Erbil provinces in the no-fly zone. The committee is preparing a census to get more accurate numbers on the people affected by Arabization.
According to Iraqi census figures, from 1957 to 1977 Kirkuk's Kurdish population fell from 47 percent to 38 percent while the proportion of Arabs rose from 28 percent to 44 percent. Iraq has not published newer census figures.
Arabs moving to Kirkuk get incentives such as a modern house, a plot of land to farm or a good job, the Kurds say. They also get paid to rebury their relatives in Kirkuk to make it appear that the Arab presence has been a long one, the committee said.

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