NEAR THE IRAQ-IRAN BORDER — They are ethnic Iranians who speak Arabic instead of the Farsi of their native land. They are the cultural offspring of two ancient rivals: Iraq and Iran, the neighbor once known as Persia.
Numbering roughly 3 million, they are also second-class citizens in both countries, neither of which wants them back.
Saddam Hussein considered them Arabs rather than Persians, and in 1980 he invaded their heartland, the southwestern corner of neighboring Iran. Iran calls the territory Khuzestan; Iraq calls it Arabistan.
Forced back by an Iranian counterattack in 1982, Saddam’s army took thousands of these “Arabistanis” into Iraq and resettled them in such southern cities as Amara, Basra and Kut.
The chaos that followed Saddam’s ouster prompted many Iraqis to drive the Arabistanis out of their homes.
“When the regime fell, masked men came at us with guns and made us leave Kut,” said Lafta Salman, 31, who worked at a farming camp around Kut. “They stole everything: cookery, electronics. My pickup truck was hijacked and stolen on the way here.”
Many of the thousands uprooted by ethnic animosity remain caught between two countries that don’t want them. Each suspects them of spying for the other. Indeed, there is a widely held if unproven belief in Basra that they worked both sides of the war in order to survive.
“They never really feel at home. It’s a mess,” said Amin Awad, regional coordinator for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. “Saddam gave them land. The Iraqi people obliged them to give up that land.”
About six miles from the Iraqi border, 35 families are camped at an abandoned U.N. compound, living on relief and wondering where they will wind up.
A worse case is developing in the north, where Saddam spent nearly two decades trying to eradicate the Kurds by means including driving them from towns they dominated and moving in Arabs.
Now Kurds are descending on some of their old towns, often violently driving out the Iraqis who live in their homes.