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Two Million Iraqis Have Fled In Past Three Years
Yahoo News/AP
By OMAR SINAN, Associated Press Writer
February 7, 2007

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq - Some 2 million Iraqis have fled to neighboring countries in the past three years and up to 3,000 more go abroad every day, according to the U.N. refugee agency. But Umm Ali and her husband, Hussein Jawad, are among nearly 85,000 Iraqi Arabs who have sought refuge in the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq.

Here, they find themselves in what feels like a foreign country: Kurdistan has been autonomous since 1991, and Kurds run their own affairs. While Arabic is an official language, it is all but eclipsed by Kurdish.

As snow fell outside, the smell of frying eggplant and onions burned Umm Ali's eyes as she cooked in her kitchen — which doubles as the family bathroom. There's not much else: one other room for her, her husband and four children. Still, she says, it's better here than at the family's home in Baghdad, 180 miles south, at the center of Iraq's bloodshed.

"Even if we were living in a tent, without a real roof over our heads in this snowy weather, we'd still be happy to be away from that intimidation," said the 41-year-old Shiite.

Iraq's Kurdistan also has largely been spared the relentless car bombings, suicide attacks and Shiite-Sunni slayings that have killed thousands in Baghdad, central Iraq and the south. People here also are mostly free of the daily crime, kidnappings, death threats and fear present in Baghdad.

The result has been an economic boom in the three provinces that make up Kurdistan, with many construction jobs for Iraqis from the south.

"Our joy comes in feeling secure," said Jawad, who took his wife and children from Baghdad's Dora district after a note was left at their house calling the family "Shiite infidels" and warning the children would be "slain like sheep" if the family didn't leave.

"I didn't care about my house," he said. "I just felt my children and I needed to live our lives." He now works as an electrician at a new three-star hotel here.

The influx has strained social services in the north, however, and fueled rising housing prices. It also comes at a time when Kurdish-Arab tensions are increasing in the city of Kirkuk, just outside the Kurdish zone, over Kurdish attempts to include it in Kurdistan. Similar Kurdish-Arab tensions have arisen in the northern city of Mosul.

That makes the peaceful migration of Iraqi Arabs to Kurdish cities like Sulaimaniyah somewhat unusual in the country's history. Under Saddam Hussein, Kurds were terrorized and repressed; Saddam tried to send Arabs north in some cases to displace Kurds in key cities.

So far, the flight of Iraqi Arabs to the three Kurdish provinces has not sparked significant ethnic tensions. In fact, the governor of Sulaimaniyah, Dana Ahmad Majeed, has invited more Iraqis to come north rather than leave Iraq altogether.

Majeed said the federal government needs to give Kurdistan more medical supplies, fuel and electricity to handle the flood of refugees.

"The support these displaced people are getting is so slim compared to the skyrocketing numbers of these emigrants (to Kurdistan) every day," he told The Associated Press.

Of the nearly 85,000 displaced Iraqis who now live in the three Kurdish provinces, about 30,000 live in Sulaimaniyah province, said Anita Raman of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The UNHCR has been providing emergency help for the most vulnerable, including kerosene, lanterns, blankets and food, she said.

At the "border" between Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq, Kurdish fighters at checkpoints stop and search the cars of entering Arabs. Families are allowed in without permits, but single men must have a Kurdish sponsor and a work permit — a security measure to keep out militants, Kurdish authorities say.

Those who come have to make adjustments — to the high rents, scarce housing, cold winter weather and the Kurdish language. Kurdish uses the Arabic alphabet, but is an Indo-European language unrelated to Semitic Arabic.

"We couldn't even read the signs in the streets," said Jawdat al-Obaidi, a Sunni Arab from the town of Youssifiyah, just south of Baghdad. "I am trying to learn the language so I can find a decent job and settle here."

The 46-year-old engineer fled Youssifiyah two months ago after Shiite militiamen scrawled "death to terrorists" on his house.

Now he's thrilled to have found the Jawahiri Elementary School — Sulaimaniyah's only Arabic language school, where he has enrolled his three sons.

Near the school one recent day, a Kurdish street vendor selling cookies and chocolates stood surrounded by a dozen Arab children. Hussein Mazin, a 12-year-old Shiite, struggled to find a way to ask the vendor whether he sold a particular kind of potato chip.

"I speak some Kurdish," Mazin said, smiling. "But obviously not very well."

Mazin's family fled the southern city of Basra after his brother was abducted. The kidnappers returned him after the family paid a ransom, but they also threatened to seize his younger sister, too.

"We are not afraid of the kidnappers anymore," Mazin said.

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