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Politics of real estate may be most explosive issue in northern Iraq

DOMIZ, Iraq—First it was Kurdish. Then Arab. Then, thanks to the war, it was Kurdish again. Then, thanks to American intervention, it was Arab once more. Finally, with American troops keeping the peace, the population of the northern Iraqi town of Domiz is mixed.

And, many residents say, so are Domiz's prospects.

"We feel safe," said Nashwan Hamid Khalil, the town's Arab interim mayor, whose eloquent protests helped convince U.S. authorities to evict the armed Kurds who'd seized Arab houses. "We feel that there is law."

"We are selling our house," countered Ahmed Ali Mahmud, 52, one of a growing number of longtime Arab residents who returned to Domiz, only to sell their homes and move away for good. "We are afraid that if the Americans leave this area, the Kurds will drive us out."

Less than a month after American troops intervened to undo their erstwhile Kurdish allies' land grab, this 800-household community appears to be doing yet another demographic somersault.

In less than a week, Khalil said, 66 Arab families sold their homes to Kurds. Another 184 Kurdish families moved into vacant houses and adjacent buildings that housed Iraqi Army personnel before the war.

American officials in Domiz say the plan was to create a mixed community.

"We've got a mandate to show that Kurds and Arabs can live together," said Lt. Straus Scantlin, 31, a civil affairs team leader with the 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Ky.

Under a deal that secured the cooperation of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, a leading Kurdish faction whose members had been the squatters, houses in the village now may be sold only to Kurds.

"It's very democratic," Scantlin said of the sales process. "The people who want to stay have stayed. The people who want to leave have left."

But many Arab residents said the political environment in northern Iraq has frightened their neighbors into moving.

"People are selling at very cheap prices just to leave this place," said Tadhi Hila Daher, 55, an Arab widow who lives with her daughter-in-law and six grandchildren. Daher said she thought Kurds in surrounding communities would return when U.S. troops departed.

"If it were not for the Americans, they would kill us all," she said.

The politics of real estate may be the most explosive issue in northern Iraq.

The area was the epicenter of Saddam Hussein's policy of "Arabization," under which tens of thousands of Kurds were forced off their land to make way for members of Iraq's Arab majority.

This spring, as Kurdish forces moved south alongside American troops during the war, entire Arabized villages fled because they knew the original Kurdish residents would return.

In most cases, American troops didn't intervene. U.S. officials said competing land claims would be sorted out once a legal system and a political process were in place.

Domiz was different. A bedroom community built for civil servants and lower-level military families by Saddam's government during the 1980s, its Arab residents had proof that they had paid for their houses. Homeless and destitute in the nearby city of Mosul after the war, the Arabs protested outside the American military headquarters.

Khalil tracked down the descendants of families who had owned the land under the Ottoman Empire to prove that Saddam's government had compensated Kurdish landowners when it built the town.

"They had the paperwork," said Capt. Teresa Raymond, 32, the judge advocate general officer for the 101st Airborne's 2nd Brigade. "They had an immediate complaint."

On May 6, American troops acted on that complaint, descending in helicopters and loudspeaker-equipped Humvees to disarm the Kurdish squatters and order them out by sundown.

It was an emotional day, as Kurds accused the Arabs of being senior members of Saddam's Baath Party and accused their erstwhile American allies of betrayal.

"This land belongs to Kurds and we paid for it with our blood," said Nooruddin Mohil Salim, 30, a Kurdish militiaman who like many residents brandished KDP chits that purportedly entitled him to a house. "Now the Americans are telling us to leave."

After the original Arab residents returned in a bus caravan several days later, American officials stressed that Domiz was not a precedent.

"It's not for us to decide if it's Kurdish or Arab land," said Col. Joe Anderson, the brigade commander in charge of U.S. forces in Mosul. Anderson said he wanted Mosul's recently selected city government to deal with such issues.

Amid reports that armed Kurds had attacked Arabs in surrounding villages after the Kurds were evicted from Domiz, American authorities shuttled by helicopter to the nearby headquarters of Mustafa Mohammed, the local KDP leader.

The KDP initially had asked Americans and members of Mosul's interim administration to require that 500 of the homes be returned to Kurds. Under a compromise, sales of houses in Domiz, long restricted under Saddam's regime, were opened up, but only Kurds were allowed to buy.

For many longtime Domiz residents, the Arabs' U.S.-assisted return has proved to be bittersweet. Ayad Hamid Mohammed, 42, returned to find his house emptied of all his furniture. Electrical sockets had been pried from walls, and even the kitchen sink was missing. But Mohammed said he was back for good.

"We don't care about the furniture," he said. "We can buy it back. The most important thing is we have our house back."

Several doors from Mohammed, a neighbor's house was empty, with "for sale" scrawled in chalk on its gate in Arabic. On the street, several residents of the nearby Kurdish city of Duhok walked around with wads of cash and a handful of real estate questions.

At the former grocery store where Jasim Farja, 35, a onetime taxi driver, had set himself up as the embattled village's real estate agent, business was brisk. Farja, whose Domiz house was destroyed during the war, said he'd sold 20 houses in two days for prices ranging from $2,000 to $5,000, not enough to buy a house elsewhere.

"They're good houses," said Said Abdullah, 34, whose only worry about buying one was ensuring that the title was legal. "It's just that many of them don't have windows and doors now."


(Schaffer reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-VILLAGE