DOMIZ, Iraq—American forces stepped into the delicate subject of ethnicity and land ownership in postwar Iraq for the first time on Tuesday as troops from the 101st Airborne Division descended on this small town to evict the Kurdish families who had displaced 800 Arab residents.
As helicopters circled above and some 175 well-armed troops patrolled the streets and disarmed a small contingent of Kurdish militiamen, Col. Joe Anderson of the 101st Airborne told a group of newly arrived Kurdish residents that they had until the end of the day to leave town.
Anderson said he first ordered the Kurds out of Domiz on Sunday, after the army learned that many of Domiz's former Arab residents were homeless and living in the nearby city of Mosul.
Domiz is a smartly arranged town of spacious houses that was one of dozens of identical towns built for Iraqi military and government workers in the 1980s.
The Kurds in the town reacted angrily to the eviction notice, saying Domiz was on Kurdish land. Some argued that they couldn't possibly arrange to leave by nightfall.
Some of the Kurds have been in Domiz since Kurdish militiamen first cleared Arabs from the town during the war. Others arrived only in the past few days. The residents said they were members of the Kurdistan Democratic Party who had been given their houses because members of their families had died fighting the Iraqi regime. Some residents brandished chits bearing their house numbers and a stamp from the KDP, one of the two major Kurdish parties in the north.
But Anderson arrived on Tuesday with a letter from KDP leader Massoud Barzani, which he said told residents that they should leave. Anderson said his staff had met with representatives of the party to talk about the expropriations in Domiz. "Whoever told them they could stay was wrong," he said. "Just because they cleared it by military force doesn't mean they can stay."
Saddam Hussein's government brutally removed Kurds from their homes and moved in Arabs from other parts of Iraq. In many villages Kurds have moved back to their old homes. But Anderson said Domiz was different. Although the town is located in a traditionally Kurdish area, there were no residents on this patch of hilly real estate before the town was built.
Anderson said troops wouldn't be wading into most Iraqi property disputes. He said the army acted in Domiz only because it was a rare case where the evidence was fairly clear-cut. The goal was to restore pre-war conditions, he said.
A Humvee mounted with loudspeakers rolled through the streets, broadcasting Anderson's order and a warning that people must not loot windows, sinks or other pieces of the houses.
"This land belongs to Kurdistan," said Tatar Khwaja Osman, 30, a Kurdish peshmerga militiaman who said he had been in a Domiz house with nine family members since the end of the war. "We have paid our blood for this house."
Osman said his family had been given the house because two relatives were killed in clashes between Kurdish and Iraqi government forces over the past two decades. The family had been living in a small village near the Turkish border before coming to Domiz. Osman vowed to fight rather than go back.
"This is our land," he said. "We are ready to embrace martyrdom rather than give it to anyone. America and its allies came here for democracy, not to displace people."
By the afternoon, however, most of the 81 Kurdish families were at work packing. Residents piled their possessions atop pickup trucks, car roofs and tractors. "I'm angry," said Mohammed Abdullah, 29, a peshmerga who said he had paid to rent a truck to move him from a rented house in a village near the northern city of Aqra, and now needed to move right back.
"These houses are better than ours," said Abdullah, strapping a water tank to the mountain of household goods atop the bed of the pickup. "Because we had a person who died defending this land, we deserve these houses."
Anderson said longer-term decision-making about who lives where in post-Saddam Iraq was a matter for Iraqis to decide for themselves eventually.
The evictions were the latest episode in which American occupation forces found themselves at loggerheads with elements of the KDP, an ally whose forces helped U.S. troops take northern Iraq.
U.S. troops based in Mosul earlier dismantled customs checkpoints between that city and the nearby city of Irbil. Before the war, Irbil was the main city in KDP-administered territory that was outside Saddam's control. The checkpoints were a revenue source for the autonomous Kurdish government, but are officially forbidden in unified postwar Iraq. KDP officials have said that any customs checkpoints since the war have been run by renegades, not troops following orders.
Late in the afternoon in Domiz, half of the new residents were gone and 20 more were getting ready to pull out. Anderson gave the remaining Kurds one more night to finish up.
Shuker Mahmoud Said, 38, a Kurdish government irrigation office employee, waited glumly with his mother in a house he had planned to occupy with seven other relatives. Said's father was a peshmerga who died in 1997, he said. But even as he tried to find a truck to take him back to his brother-in-law's home in nearby Duhok, Said insisted that Domiz would always be on "Kurdish land."
"We don't want to occupy someone's house," he said. "Let the government compensate them."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-ARABTOWN