ZUMAR, Iraq, Oct 10, (RTRS): From the terrace of the house Abu Suhail occupies, you can see Iraq’s ethnic fault lines widening. Like many houses in this northern Iraqi town, the drab concrete building used to be owned by an Arab family. Abu Suhail, a Kurd who owns a small shop, lived down the block. He and his family shared glasses of tea with their Arab neighbours; his two sons played with Arab kids in the streets. But after Islamic State seized Zumar during its lightning sweep through northern and western Iraq in 2014, most Kurds fled, leaving the town to the Sunni militant group. Two months later, the Kurds hit back, pushing Islamic State out. Now, Zumar is populated almost entirely by Kurds, many of whom, like Abu Suhail, have had no qualms about seizing homes. He said the Arab who owned the house he has taken supported Islamic State.
The same shift can be seen in towns and villages across the ethnically mixed ribbon of land that divides the autonomous Kurdish area in the north of Iraq from the Arab-majority part in the south. As the Peshmerga — Iraqi Kurdistan’s fighting force — have battled Islamic State, many Arabs have been forced from their homes. Ordinary Kurds have come in behind, seizing properties, destroying buildings, and grabbing farmland. In total, Kurds have increased the size of the region they control in Iraq by around 40 percent since 2014. This is how the map is being redrawn across Iraq and Syria: Groups fighting Islamic State are using the battle to settle older disputes and expand their territory. Kurds say they are simply redressing historic wrongs perpetrated by successive Iraqi leaders, particularly the former dictator Saddam Hussein. His policy of “Arabisation” in the north razed Kurdish villages and displaced hundreds of thousands. But others, including many in the Iraqi government led by Haider al-Abadi, say the Kurds are creating new grievances and setting up future conflicts. The growing sway of Iraq’s Kurds is also worrying neighbouring states, which fear their own Kurdish minorities could follow their ethnic brethren in Iraq.
Tensions have been rising in the past few months as Iraqi government forces, Kurds and Iranian-backed Shiite militias gear up for an offensive to drive Islamic State from its stronghold in the city of Mosul. The members of the uneasy alliance share a common enemy, but they agree on little else. You can see the tension in the graffiti — “Reserved for Kurd” and “Long live the Kurdish state!” — painted on walls in areas once held by Islamic State. In Zumar, a burntout Arab home bears one word in dark red paint: “Kurd.” Around the corner, the house of another long-time Arab resident appears to have been bulldozed. Abu Suhail said the owner had supported Islamic State.
“The Arabs know right returns to the rightful owner,” he said, sitting in his father’s home near the house he now claims. “Now our lands are in our hands.” Falah Mustafa, the head of the Kurdish department of foreign relations, agrees. Many Peshmerga have died fighting Islamic State, he told Reuters. The Kurdish government “cannot allow the sacrifices to be in vain by reinstituting Arabisation, which is the policy of the former regime. Definitely the Arabisation process has to be reversed.” Kurds see consolidating their territory as an important step to statehood, which they have wanted ever since European powers carved up the Ottoman Empire a century ago. The new borders defined modern Iraq but spread the Kurdish people between it and three of its neighbours.
In Iraq, Kurds were regularly repressed, especially under Saddam. Zumar is a case in point. The old village was submerged in the 1980s during the construction of Mosul dam, Iraq’s largest. When water levels in the dam are low, the tops of the tallest buildings can still be seen. Saddam built a replacement village on land that the Kurds say was taken from them. There, and in Kurdish areas across northern Iraq, he spent the next two decades resettling Arabs. Things changed after the US-led invasion in 2003 toppled Saddam. After the first Gulf War in 1990, the Kurds had carved out an enclave that was protected by a no-fly zone backed by a US-led coalition. With Saddam finally gone, the Kurds became more powerful. Many returned to their villages, or what remained of them. Arabs left, sometimes under duress, often of their own accord.
A new constitutional provision called for a referendum on the future of the border areas. But the process festered because Iraq’s fractious political class could not agree how to implement it. Abu Suhail, now 40, was not yet born when his ancestral village was torched in the 1970s. His family settled in another village. But by 2005, they decided to join other Kurds returning to Zumar and buy land there. The arrival of Islamic State in August 2014 revived old fears. In an interview last year, Kurdish President Masoud Barzani told pan-Arab daily al-Hayat that many Iraqi Sunnis were using Islamic State to strengthen their own claims.