In a Reclaimed Village, Kurds' Future Unclear

The Kurdish village of Qara-Hnjeer in northern Iraq was long occupied by Saddam Hussein's army, which changed its name. The highway to oil-rich Kirkuk, seven miles away, is visible in the distance.
The Kurdish village of Qara-Hnjeer in northern Iraq was long occupied by Saddam Hussein's army, which changed its name. The highway to oil-rich Kirkuk, seven miles away, is visible in the distance. (By Jackie Spinner -- The Washington Post)

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By Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 27, 2005

QARA-HNJEER, Iraq -- For more than 20 years, the Iraqi army knew this village as Rabie, the Arabic word for spring. Soldiers occupied the simple cinder-block houses that Kurdish residents had built on the rolling brown hills on either side of the highway that connects Kirkuk with Chamchamal in northern Iraq.

Rabie was a no-man's land of guns, mines, tanks and troops on the front line of a territorial battle between Saddam Hussein's army and the ethnic Kurds the soldiers were sent to chase.

Because Qara-Hnjeer was used as a military outpost, its physical structures avoided the wholesale razing that Hussein's forces inflicted on other Kurdish communities. Now, 23 years after the Iraqi troops moved in, residents have returned, reclaiming the village and its original Kurdish name, which means "black fig."

Almost all of the 20,047 registered voters in Qara-Hnjeer and the surrounding area voted on Oct. 15 in the referendum on a draft constitution, according to estimates from the local committee of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the dominant political party in the region. Of those who cast ballots, 99.5 percent voted in favor of the constitution, said Sabah Sharif, a representative of the Qara-Hnjeer PUK committee.

"We never had an opportunity to have a constitution, so the people came to vote for it," Sharif said. "It's a result of our struggle. It's a result of our suffering in this land."

The constitution formally recognizes the existence of the Kurdish region of Iraq and allows for a Kurdish constitution that can override the central government in disputed claims of power. Iraqi officials announced Tuesday that voters had approved the national charter.

People here view the document as a significant milestone for the Kurdish population as a whole, which was persecuted by Hussein and has long sought recognition of its unique ethnic identity.

But that is little solace for the Kurdish villagers of Qara-Hnjeer. Under the constitution, Qara-Hnjeer will remain outside of the Kurdish-controlled region, still answering to a government in Baghdad that many people deeply distrust.

"If the city is in the hands of the Arabs, we'll all be killed," said Abdurahaman Abdulfadah, 85, who lives on a sewage-fouled dirt road in the village center.

Naimal Ibrahim, 41, interrupted his father, explaining that sometimes the elder man speaks his mind too much. "We don't believe in Arabs," Ibrahim said. "We don't trust Arabs. We will only have our rights if we are governed by Kurdish leaders."

Compared to the oil-rich city of Kirkuk seven miles to the north, which also lies outside the zone, Qara-Hnjeer is strategically unimportant these days to either Iraq or the Kurdish region. It is just a small spot on the map, impoverished, with no running water or electricity. Few people expect the government in Baghdad to help.

"We don't have services," Abdulfadah said, as his sons and grandchildren gathered around the small, dirty mattress where he rested while selling sodas and snacks from a small shack next to his house. "We don't have anyone. Nobody looks after us. We don't know if there is a government or not."


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