Posted on October 26, 2016 by Editorial Staff in Kirkuk
Lise Grande, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, Erbil, Kurdistan region. Photo: Reuters
HEWLÊR-Erbil, Iraq’s Kurdistan region,— The United Nations voiced concern on Tuesday that Kurdish authorities had forced 250 Sunni Arab families to leave Kirkuk after an Islamic State attack on the Kurdish-controlled city, saying the move could be seen as collective punishment.
Lise Grande, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq said the United Nations was informed that two days after the Islamic State attack, Kurdish authorities announced they would be expelling Sunni Arabs – who have already been displaced by the conflict with Islamic State.
“Just a few hours after the announcement we understand that around 250 civilian families felt they had no choice but to leave,” she said in an interview at a hotel in Erbil, about 75 km (40 miles) east of Mosul.
Authorities in Kirkuk suspect the Islamic State fighters who attacked Kirkuk on Friday were helped by Sunni sleeper cells. Grande said the United Nations had no evidence that the families had helped Islamic State but the timing of the move suggested it was used as a pretext to force them out.
“The United Nations is very concerned about any action that could be understood as collective punishment,” she said, adding that she was worried that the move could also set a precedent in a region riven with ethnic and sectarian divisions.
The oil-rich province of Kirkuk is one of the most disputed areas by the Kurdistan regional government and the Iraqi government in Baghdad because of its complex population mix. The Kurds took full control of the province in 2014 after Islamic State overran much of the north of the country and several divisions of the Iraqi army disintegrated.
Arabs complain that Kurds have since flooded to Kirkuk to tilt the demographic balance, while Kurds say they are simply redressing historic wrongs perpetrated by Saddam Hussein, the Sunni Arab leader toppled by the United States in 2003.
Kurdish officials have denied allegations they are trying to change northern Iraq’s demographics by seizing land.
At the same time, over 300,000 Sunni Arabs have sought refuge in Kurdish-ruled Kirkuk from the Islamic State jihadists.
Saddam’s policy of “Arabisation” in the north during his quarter century in power led to many Kurdish villages being razed and hundreds of thousands of Kurds being displaced to ensure Arab dominance over local Kurds.
In Geneva, Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) at the regular news briefing at the United Nations Office at Geneva, expressed concern over the severe measures that Kirkuk authorities were taking against internally displaced people living in the city – following the surprise IS attacks carried out there on Friday, 21 October.
“In the morning of 23 October 2016, the Security Committee of Kirkuk Governorate and Asayish Forces issued a decision – with immediate effect – ordering all internally displaced people who have been living outside camps in Kirkuk, to vacate their residences by 8:00 a.m. the following day – yesterday morning,” the OHCHR spokesperson stated.
The order specifies that if the internally displaced people did not comply, they would be compelled by force to vacate their residences, which would then be demolished. The only option given to those who wish to stay in the Kirkuk area is to move into established camps that are either already full or very close to it.
“We understand that hundreds of families have now been evicted by Kurdish Security Forces, and are worried that if the evictions continue, it could significantly complicate the already alarming situation of mass displacement in the region,” lamented Mr. Colville.
While fully understanding the authorities’ security concerns in the wake of the murderous IS attacks, OHCHR pointed out that such evictions should be reasonable and only carried out as a last resort when no other alternative is available.
Lise Grande, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq said “Those who are displaced have the right to decide when they return and where they are going to live. They cannot be expelled, this is why we are so worried of this particular precedent,”
She said the displaced people left Kirkuk and headed towards the nearby provinces of Salahuddin, Anbar and Diyala.
Aside from taking on Islamic State in Mosul, Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government also faces the delicate task of ensuring that any victory does not spark sectarian tensions in the predominantly Sunni city and elsewhere.
Iraq has been destabilised by a mostly Sunni and Shi’ite sectarian war, and friction between Kurds and Arabs have deepened tensions.
The Kurds are seeking to integrate Kirkuk province into the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region claiming it to be historically a Kurdish city, it lies just south border of the Kurdistan autonomous region, the population is a mix of majority Kurds and minority of Arabs, Christians and Turkmen. Kurds have a strong cultural and emotional attachment to Kirkuk, which they call “the Kurdish Jerusalem.” Kurds see it as the rightful and perfect capital of an autonomous Kurdistan state.