Thursday, August 31, 2006

FEATURE-Fleeing violence, Iraq's Arabs flock to Kurdistan

SULAIMANIYA, Iraq, Aug 31 (Reuters) - Fed up with car bombs and death threats, Lazem Hamid, an Iraqi doctor from one of Baghdad's most violent neighbourhoods, decided one day to pack his bags and take his family north to Kurdistan.

"I had to leave it all and come here. There was no chance for us in Baghdad. The day we left, our neighbours came out to congratulate us. Life is good here. I have made Kurdish friends," said the 50-year-old microbiology specialist.

Thousands of Arabs like Hamid have arrived among the ethnic Kurds of the soaring northern mountains, fleeing the violence gripping much of Iraq since the bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in February pushed the country to the brink of civil war.

The trend is a stunning reversal for Iraq's Kurdistan, home mainly to non-Arab Kurds. During the 1980s, tens of thousands of Kurds were killed in the region during Saddam Hussein's military campaign, which emptied entire villages.

In June, Hamid set up a private clinic in Sulaimaniya, in partnership with a cardiologist and an orthopaedics specialist -- both of whom are also from Baghdad, 330 km (205 miles) to the south.

It is not only doctors and academics who have fled north, leaving once-prestigious hospitals and universities in Baghdad without qualified specialists and scholars.

Arab labourers from the Shi'ite south and the Sunni heartland have also sought refuge from the violence. Now, hundreds sleep on cardboard boxes in Sulaimaniya's public parks, scratching out a living in the booming construction sector or working as porters for Kurdish merchants.

There are no official figures for the number of Arabs who have resettled in Kurdistan, but anecdotal evidence suggests it has become a magnet for those who can't afford to go abroad.


Iraq's Kurdistan has been semi-autonomous since a failed uprising against Saddam in 1991 that led the United States and Britain to establish a no-fly zone across the region.

The 2003 fall of Saddam, who is on trial for genocide for the seven-month campaign against the Kurds in 1988, deepened the region's autonomy and its relative calm set it apart even more.

Many of the Arab labourers -- Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims alike -- come from regions where their communities are at each other's throats. More than 3,000 people were killed in sectarian bloodshed in July alone.

But in the crowded parks of Sulaimaniya they seem to live in harmony. They pray together in the old mosque, share meals and sleep on the withered grass, head to toe, their few possessions -- usually spare sandals and an extra shirt -- lying nearby.

"I left my home because I was scared of getting killed. I feel safe here and have a job," said Hassan Ali Mohammed, a Sunni who arrived in June from Baquba, a city north of Baghdad, which has seen some of the worst violence in the country.

Mohammed, who makes $10 a day working as a mason, said Kurds were kind and local police didn't bother them as long as they stayed away from the city's main park, which is across the street from a hotel frequented by foreigners.

"We are all poor in this park, Shi'ites and Sunnis. We get along. We all want to work," said Mohammed Hassad, a Shi'ite from Hilla, south of Baghdad, who arrived in August.

While violence has left much of Iraq's economy in tatters, cities in Kurdistan are prosperous with building cranes popping up and foreign firms looking for bases. Rents have soared, the region offers tax breaks to firms, profits can be transferred out of Kurdistan and foreign companies can own land.

Kurds seem generally happy that their economy is expanding enough to absorb the labour of their Arab neighbours, although many Kurds are also unemployed, especially in the countryside.

But some Arabs complain of feeling unwelcome in the far north and Arab-Kurd struggles for control of the northern oil city of Kirkuk remain a potential flashpoint for conflict.


According to Iraq's Ministry of Displacement and Migration, about 200,000 people have fled their homes due to sectarian violence since the bombing of the Samarra mosque in February.

But the number of refugees is likely to be far higher because ministry figures do not include those who flee abroad or resettle in other parts of Iraq.

The population shift is consolidating a de facto partition along ethnic and sectarian lines. In religiously mixed Baghdad, officials and residents talk gloomily of the emergence of a Shi'ite-Sunni "Green Line", with the Tigris River as a border.

The drift north is also creating a brain drain.

Iraqis living in Baghdad and in other cities find it increasingly difficult to track down a surgeon or dentist. Many are turned away at emergency rooms with the words: "The doctor is not here. Go to Jordan or Kurdistan to get treated."

In the 1980s, Iraq boasted some of the best doctors in the Arab world and many travelled to Baghdad to be treated.

Hamid, the microbiologist, said he has no plans to return to Baghdad any time soon and that he has even learned some Kurdish. He said the doctor who replaced him at his Baghdad hospital was kidnapped for a $40,000 ransom.

"I still have a house in Baghdad," he said. "One day I will return. But only when there is security." (Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile)



Post a Comment

<< Home