Amir Shaykhani would like to announce a name change for his home village. For 16 years, it has been called Hadidyin, an Arabic name, and populated only by Iraqi Arabs. From now on it will go by its Kurdish name, Shamamar, and soon Kurds will return to live here.
Shaykhani left the village at the age of 10, clutching blankets and pots, when President Saddam Hussein's forces crushed a Kurdish revolt in northern Iraq. On his homecoming today, Shaykhani wielded an AK-47 assault rifle as a fighter in the anti-Hussein Kurdish militia known as pesh merga, or "those who face death."
The Arab inhabitants fled over night. "God willing, they will not come back," he told visiting reporters.
This week, as Iraqi forces have withdrawn from the frontline positions that separate government-held territory from an autonomous Kurdish zone, they left Arab residents of the area exposed. The Arabs were settled in hamlets once populated by Kurds in a program designed to alter the ethnic balance of the oil-rich region.
Tens of thousands of ethnic Kurds say they want to go home -- not only to mud-hut communities like this one, but to the major cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. So far, they are moving gingerly. Kurdish authorities have forbidden wholesale, unorganized returns. Shaykhani was part of a pesh merga unit inspecting Shamamar and securing a checkpoint on the main road close by. The village sits about 22 miles from the Kurdish-controlled city of Irbil on the way to Mosul, another 25 miles away.
Slivers of northern Iraq that only a few days ago were defended by Baghdad's forces are entering an era without Hussein's rule. The end of "Arabization" is an ardent Kurdish desire. Kurdish officials say they hope to gain political influence in a future, democratic Iraq, ending a long period of repression punctuated by frequent Kurdish revolts.
The Arab settlers left late Wednesday, firing a few shots as the pesh merga approached, Shaykhani said. The Arabs had evidently prepared their exit in advance. The houses were empty and only one stray dog remained. The doors had been pried off their hinges and carted away. "They knew they would have to leave when we came," said Shaykhani.
Nearby Iraqi army units had been hit by heavy U.S. bombing. The mangled hulk of a truck that carried mortar shells lay a few miles north on the road. Some of the shells were strewn several yards over the surrounding pasture.
During the 1987 revolt, Iraqi soldiers razed Shamamar, at the time populated by about 100 families. The Arabs, brought in from a region west of Mosul, built mud and wattle huts in their desert style: sloped roofs each with a tower, unfenced yards and small rooms. The Kurds prefer flat-roofed houses enclosed by walls with big rooms. "We won't move into their houses," Shaykhani said. "We will live in tents before rebuilding our houses in our way."
This is a part of the world where the possessive is an extremely important part of speech. Our land, our language, our house, our music, our poetry, our customs; this is the grammar of personal identity. Devotion to a nation-state is secondary. In dealing with restive minorities like the Kurds, governments across the region have used a variety of strategies, mostly repressive. For decades, Turkey declined to accept the notion of a Kurdish ethnic group. They were labeled "Mountain Turks."
Saddam Hussein recognized the Kurds as a constituent Iraqi ethnic group, even while designating Iraq an Arab republic. In crushing Kurdish uprisings, he took increasingly harsh steps to obliterate the fabric of Kurdish life. During the 1980s, he destroyed thousands of villages throughout the north to drive the Kurds into cities. The Arabization campaign included pressure on Kurds to register themselves officially as Arabs.
American bombing and a tactical Iraqi retreat closer to Mosul and Kirkuk have opened the way for a Kurdish return to a handful of locations. Dozens of villages, some destroyed, some populated by Arabs, lie in the territory around both cities. Until today, the Iraqi pullback had been mostly orderly. However, bombing intensified all along the line north of Kirkuk and Mosul.
A few miles northwest of the town of Kalek, on the main Irbil-Mosul road, U.S. special forces working with the Kurdish militias joined a firefight, directing machine gun fire at a bridge. F-14 Tomcats bombed Iraqi positions, but by late afternoon, the Iraqis were still holding on, sending mortars and artillery toward Kalek, which they had abandoned the night before. Airstrikes from AC-130 planes targeted an Iraqi mechanized battalion in the area.
Nonetheless, the Iraqis still control important approaches to oil fields between Kirkuk and Mosul and the main road that connects the two cities.
At a ridge north-northwest of Kalek, residents of Gurilan village made their way to a twin hamlet just two miles away. The shepherds and farmers inhabit what until today was called Kurdish Gurilan. Arab Gurilan was the object of their visit. The last Arab residents fled this morning. They left behind empty houses, a school, a mosque, a police station, perimeter trenches, six donkeys, a couple flocks of ducks and some chickens.
Arab Gurilan sits on land that once belonged to Kurdish Gurilan. Except for a few smugglers, the Kurds had not visited the area since 1974, when the government confiscated their wheat fields during another Kurdish revolt. "We will not let the Arabs come back. They had never lived here before. They are kind of enemies. This is our fathers' and grandfathers' land. That was not right," said Mohammed Ramazan , Kurdish Gurilan's mukhtar, or traditional leader.
Ramazan, 56, said he had not decided whether Kurds will move into the Arab houses. Several dozen Kurdish Gurilan families live in Irbil as refugees. "I hope they will want to come here. They are our relatives," Ramazan said. "I am happy we have our land back. God willing, we will have freedom from Saddam soon."
Kurdish officials authorized Shaykhani's visit to Shamamar. The Kurdistan Democratic Party, which administers this part of northern Iraq, has been keeping a tight leash on returnees; checkpoints on the road were turning back curiosity seekers to Irbil. Kurdish authorities are especially concerned about a return to Kirkuk because Turkey has threatened to invade if the Kurds take the city. No imminent assault on Kirkuk appears in the works. The United States lacks forces to attack the city and employing the Kurds as a battering ram would be a major departure from Washington's policy of fighting in Iraq without the aid of local forces.
Ramazan's visit to Arab Gurilan was spontaneous. He does not belong to the pesh merga, although his villagers are armed.
But they didn't need to fire a shot to reclaim this territory. One young man, however, used his shotgun to bring down a pigeon for lunch. In the background the occasional thump of aerial bombing broke the rural silence.
Staff writer Steve Vogel contributed to this report from Irbil, Iraq.