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      Demographic Engineering, the Forcible Deportation of the Kurds in Iraq, and the Question of Ethnic Cleansing and Genocide

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      Pluto Journals
      Iraq, Kurdish, oil-rich regions, Kirkuk, Khanaqin, demographic engineering, soft and hard forms, Paul Morland


            The Iraqi state-directed demographic engineering of the oil-rich Kurdish districts of Kirkuk and Khanaqin was launched in the early 1920s and has continued to the present day. The history and use of Arabization as a geopolitical strategy for controlling oil revenue in the region has been investigated (Talabany 2008; 2011). The issue of genocide within these various demographic and ethnic constructions remains understudied. This article, informed by interdisciplinary perspectives, examines certain government documents, and follows John McGarry (1998) and Paul Morland (2016) in deploying the term “demographic engineering” to describe the control of population size, territorial changes, and the confiscation of Kurdish properties in Iraq. First, it highlights the question of genocide and its nexuses with demographic and ethnic construction in the Kurdish provinces. Second, it argues that the Kurds experienced both hard and soft forms of demographic engineering from the time of the Ottoman Empire to the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. Morland (2016) defines hard demographic engineering as the deliberate modification of a territory’s demographics by increasing or decreasing its population. The indirect soft approach shifts the identities of ethnic groups or alters territorial borders. The article concludes by reiterating that the demographic engineering of Kurds in Iraq was not only “a technique of conflict regulation” (McGarry 1998: 613) but also a means of producing geopolitical and ethnic identity shifts.

            Main article text


            Because the Kurds are indigenous people of the Middle East, they have a long history of contributing to emirates, kingdoms, and empires, as well as a long history of subjugation that has resulted in historical genocide and geopolitical upheavals. Writing about their history requires volumes. This resulted in assimilation into their oppressors’ socio-cultural and theological levels, which is a form of cultural genocide. This article utilizes excerpts from modern Kurdish history in Iraq, specifically since the division of Kurdistan, to discuss the hard and soft forms of demographic engineering rather than documenting the Kurds’ history in this regard.

            The Kurdish homeland, known as Kurdistan, since the sixteenth century has been partitioned twice (Nazan 2017). After the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514, the Kurd-inhabited areas were divided between the Safavid and Ottoman empires, an arrangement that was formalized in 1639 with the signing of the Treaty of Zuhab, also known as the Treaty of Kaser Shireen (Mella 2005; McDowall 2004; Dahlman 2002). Kurdistan was partitioned among five states following World War I: Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and the Soviet Union (Gunter 2004). Each split can be mapped onto a series of geopolitical, demographic engineering, or genocidal actions.

            Both the Safavid Persians and the Ottomans “began to view the Kurdish-inhabited regions as buffer zones between their rival empires.” ( Entessar 1992: 3) One can argue that the earliest demographic engineering was steered by Sultan Selim I. He annexed Kurdistan and Western Armenia, divided them into sanjaks or districts, and installed his most trustworthy local chiefs in the rich pastoral lands of the Kurds and Armenians ( Salih 2020). In addition to resettling the pastoral Turks between Yerevan and Erzurum, which can be interpreted as a sign of expropriation, “Ottoman administrators did not leave the conquered countryside unchanged, forcibly relocating Muslim populations from Asia, including nomadic pastoralists, and implanting new strata of military officers.” (Salzmann 2012: 71) Due to this geopolitical shift, when threatened by external assault or internal unrest caused by the ethnic and group conflicts between the reigning families, the independent and semi-independent Kurdish Emirates were obliged to seek protection from one or both powers ( Entessar 1992).

            Sultan Salim oversaw both hard and soft demographic engineering and geopolitical shifts, the former by changing the population size and territorial borders in the region and the latter by settling ethnic groups with a different language—the language of the dominant group or authority can shift the identity of an ethnic group. This process of geopolitics and identity shift may be considered a soft form of cultural genocide: the deliberate assimilation, shifting, or “destruction of the cultural heritage of a people or nation for political or military reasons.” ( Teijgeler 2011: 89). Sultan Salim’s actions are also called ethnic cleansing, which is the deportation or forcible removal of people belonging to particular ethnic groups to create ethnically homogeneous geographic areas or destruct the subjected group ( Schabas 2003).

            The second division derived from the idea of integrating the Ottoman Empire into nation-states. Turkish nationalism’s ambitions went beyond the soft form of cultural genocide and demographic engineering and believed the establishment of a nation-state to protect their interests required the creation of a homogeneous society, with one culture and one political view, or the reactivation of the Young Turks’ genocidal programs ( Salih 2020). In 1908, the Young Turks came to power by asserting a radical Turkishness. This was followed by the Armenian genocide and the closing of non-Turkish Ottoman associations and schools, and they launched a campaign of political oppression and resettlement against ethnic minorities — Kurds, Laz people, and Armenians ( Natali 2005). Thus, following World War I, the Turkish nationalist movement replaced the Treaty of Sèvres, which was signed in 1920, with the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.

            The Treaty of Sèvres proposed autonomous homelands for the Kurds, Armenians, and other minorities, to protect these minorities’ rights and land ( McDowall 2004). The Treaty of Lausanne, although it was a peace treaty between interests associated with the former Ottoman Empire and the allied countries victorious in WWI ( Spector 2004), nonetheless, it became a major cause of fragmentation and the genocide of the Kurds, as well as a source of aggression and geopolitical shifts in the Middle East. Kurdistan was forcibly “stretche[d] across five nation-states” ( Ignatieff 1994: 207). All five of these countries have since adopted various forms of genocide and oppression, including that explored in this article: demographic engineering.

            Demographic Engineering as a Technique of Genocide

            John Docker (2015: 79) notes that Raphael Lemkin, founder of the Genocide Convention, “considered removal or deportation as a constituent element of historical genocides.” Lemkin distinguishes between the destruction of the “national pattern of the oppressed group” and the “imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor.” ( Lemkin 1944: 79; Short 2007: 837) Lemkin argues that this imposition could be inflicted “upon the oppressed population, which is allowed to remain, or upon the territory alone, after the removal of the population and the colonization of the area by the oppressor’s own nationals.” (cited in Docker 2015: 127)

            In studying the Holocaust, Donald Bloxham (2009) sees the removal of an unwanted population as a technique of genocidal destruction directed toward minority communities in modern Europe. These accounts see demographic engineering itself as genocide or at least as ethnic cleansing. Lemkin perceives deportation, a key aspect of demographic engineering, as one of the “physical methods of genocide.” ( Docker 2015: 80) Based on these definitions, hard and soft forms of demographic engineering have been used as a strategy to kill Kurds in Iraq since the invasion of Islam.

            This strategy started with the Islamic invasion of Kurdistan. Arab tribes and militia were relocated to the Kurdish regions to the extent that some cities became almost completely Arab. For instance, Hewlēr (Erbil) and Diarbker were occupied by Arab tribes ( Al-Hamawi 1995; Amin 2008). Regions, neighborhoods, and cities were renamed in Arabic. Some names remained the same, but had “al” added to them, e.g., Dijla became Al-Dijla and Furat became Al-Furat ( Amin 2008). These geopolitical shifts carry implications of cultural genocide, which include forcible identity changes. According to sections a and b of article 7 of the 1994 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DRIP), this renaming from Kurdish to Arabic constitutes ethnocide and cultural genocide. The segment (a) any action that aims or has the effect of depriving them of their integrity as distinct peoples, or of their cultural values or ethnic identities; and (b) any action that aims or has the effect of dispossessing them of their lands, territories, or resources ( United Nations 2018). From the beginning, with this type of demographic engineering, the Kurds struggled to maintain their ethnic identity and their territory’s identity.

            Economic, ethnic, social, and demographic engineering are frequently deployed for colonization. Each colonizer of Kurdistan made use of these techniques, including the Ottoman Empire, which deported, manipulated, and Turkified colonized populations through its language and education policies. In 1889, the Ottoman administration in Iraq forcibly deported the Hamawand tribe to several countries, including Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Syria, and Yemen. This decision prohibited the exile of this tribe to Turkey and Iran—the first because the goal was to exile the tribe outside of Ottoman rule, the second due to the Ottomans’ political conflict with Iran’s ruling Safavid dynasty, as well as the influence of the Hamawand tribe on Kurds in Iran ( Çetinsaya 2006; Resul 1971).

            In terms of economic interests, Liam Anderson and Gareth Stansfield (2009: 17) noted that in 1880, during Sultan Abdul Hamid’s rule, “the Ottoman authorities had shown an interest in the oil of Mosul (the province including Kirkuk).” In terms of engineering population size, during Ottoman rule, many Turkmens immigrated to southern Kurdistan (ibid.) Turkic families began doing the same in 1638 with the army of Sultan Murad; by the nineteenth century many of these families “occupied the highest socioeconomic strata and held the most important bureaucratic jobs” (ibid.) in Kurdistan.

            Engineering the size of the population in Kirkuk started as early as 1897. After 363 years of occupation and the translocation of Turkmens to the Wilayet 2 of Mosul—the Ottoman historian and writer Shamsaddin Sami wrote: “three quarters of the inhabitants are Kurds, and the rest are Turkmens, Arabs, and others. Seven hundred and sixty Jews and four hundred and sixty Chaldeans also reside in the city.” (cited in Talabany 2008: 4)

            The city of Kirkuk has survived demographic engineering and geopolitical shifts to retain its distinctive Kurdish character. Throughout the centuries of Ottoman rule in Iraq, Turkmen families moved into Kurdistan and, with wide-ranging support from the Ottoman rulers, occupied the highest positions in government, industry, civil service, and other prestigious positions. The Mosul Wilayet remained a part of the Ottoman Empire until the end of the First World War ( Talabany 2008; Anderson and Stansfield 2009; Hassan 1947).

            However, due to the interests of the European powers in Kirkuk and their competition to obtain this Wilayet for the purpose of oil exploration, “in 1904, the Ottoman Civil List signed a contract with the Anatolia Railway company — funded by the Deutsche Bank — to carry out surveys in Mosul and Baghdad.” ( Anderson and Stansfield 2009: 19) International interest in oil revenue increased: “[i]n 1912 three different companies related to the authorities of Britain, Germany and Ottoman Empire formed the Turkish Petroleum Company (TPC).” ( Anderson and Stansfield 2009: 20)

            International cooperation in the TPC did not last long. In 1918, under the command of General Marshall, the British occupied Mosul ( Talabany 2008). Like the Ottomans, the British rulers moved British immigrants and their local supporters into Kurdistan, where they occupied the highest positions in its affluent oil-producing areas. In his book, The Kurds: A Historical and Political Study (1966: 108–110), Hassan Arfa asserts: 3

            At the beginning of November 1918, British forces under general Marshall occupied Mosul … The Christian Assyrians from Rezaiyeh, together with the Christian Nestorian Jelus from Hakari, who had come from Turkey to Iran, had fled from Rezaiyeh and to Hamadan and been taken by the British occupational forces to Ba’qubah, near Khanaqin. These people, and especially Jelus [Nestorian Christians, were] seeing that their British co-religionists had defeated their enemies the Turks and reduced the Kurds to [unimportance], instead of being transferred from Baqubah and resettled in their former habitats.

            Nouri Talabany (2008; 2001) explains that under the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement, signed in 1916 between France and Britain, the Mosul Wilayet was given to France. However, to continue the lucrative relationship between the two countries, France returned it to Britain in exchange for a share in “the Turkish Petroleum Company (TPC), which was established by the Ottomans and the Germans to exploit the oil in the two [Wilayet] of Baghdad and Mosul” (2008: 6). Talabany (2001) argues this agreement led the British to give the Wilayet Mosul to the newly created Iraqi State after a decision was taken by the League of Nations in 1925. King Faisal I, already crowned, “urged the people to demand to join the new Iraqi State created in 1921.” ( Talabany 2001: 6) Making the Wilayet of Mosul part of Iraq opened a new chapter of dehumanization in the lives of the Kurds of Kurdistan, extending from the establishment of a crude oil company in the region to the collapse of the Ba’ath and carried out by the Iraqi state in several stages.

            Demographic Engineering Phases

            McGarry (1998) suggests that groups are forcibly removed and given “enemy status” because their “present location[s] pose a problem for the authorities and [act as] an obstacle to their goals.” Thus, these groups are “moved from their homes and either relocated to other parts of the state or expelled from it.” ( McGarry 1998: 615) For instance, at the time the Near Eastern countries, and Iraq in particular, were more concerned with the perspectives of the international community and human rights institutions. It appears that the Iraqi government believed that if the international community had intervened, the Kurdish majority in Kirkuk and Khanaqin would have prevented the state from controlling oil reserves, as these regions would have been given to the Kurds based on majority status. Thus, dispossession of the ownership, which was the primary goal of all local Iraqi authorities, first made international communities reluctant to truly support the rights of displaced Kurds or recognize their ownership of Kirkuk. It also prevented citizen-state clashes, which often occurred in Kurdish-dominated cities; finally, it rationalized the premiant monopolization of the region in the name of the disputed territories, as defined by article 140 of the Constitution of Iraq, which are neither fully under the control of the Kurdish government nor the Iraqi government.

            According to McGarry, states attempt to achieve a variety of goals via demographic engineering, “the most important of which is the consolidation of control over territory” ( 1998: 623). The Iraqi state also sought to control the economy of the Kurds by establishing demographic control over the oil-rich region and engineering the Kurds’ ethic and social identities. This process can be divided into several phases, each involving an escalation of genocidal violence, each stage accompanied by genocidal actions and both hard and soft demographic engineering.

            The First Phase of Demographic Engineering, 1923–58

            Demographic engineering in Iraq has always been state-directed. In the modern day, according to McGarry (1998: 615), it has “been shaped by the development of nationalism and … specific ethnic groups.” This tendency towards nationalism has made the state “ethnicized,” that is, governed by regimes that are associated with the state’s dominant ethnic group, and which are “ethnocentric in nature” (ibid.)

            On the surface, Ottoman rule was predominantly religious rather than nationalist, “inspired and sustained by Islam, and Islamic institutions.” ( BBC 2015: 2) Nonetheless, it inaugurated the Turkification of the educational and linguistic systems in Iraq. With the establishment of the Monarchy in Iraq, ethnicized nationalism was nurtured through the Arabization of the Kurdish region and Kurdish identity. The increase in the Turkmen population under Ottoman rule affected the demographics of Kirkuk, and of Mosul Wilayet in general.

            By 1923, the British were running the TPC, headquartered in Kirkuk ( Anderson and Stansfield 2009). The Monarchy had already sown Arab nationalism throughout the country through its Arabization program ( Salih 2019). Forcible Arabization increased significantly after the Baba Gurgur Petroleum Company began producing oil in Kirkuk in 1927 ( Talabany 2001), though it started earlier in Khanaqin, when the first oil field was discovered there in 1923. The first oil field in Iraq was named Neft Khana, it started producing oil in 1924 ( Aishwarya 2017). Cooperation between the Monarchy, Arab nationalists, and the British grew after the British renamed TPC the Iraqi Petroleum Company (IPC) in the 1930s ( Anderson and Stansfield 2009: 32).

            With the production of oil, the Iraqi authorities began to expel the “unfavoured” Kurds from Kurdistan to the southern part of Iraq and began relocating or expelling minority groups while settling majority groups in peripheral regions previously primarily inhabited by these minorities ( McGarry 1998). The early stages of the demographic engineering of Kirkuk began with the transfer of thousands of employees and their families from other parts of Iraq and with the forcible deportation of Kurdish oil industry employees and civil servants to southern Iraq ( McDowall 2004). Talabany (2008) states that the state implemented a number of tactics to oppress the Kurds: creating security zones around oil plants; changing the names of schools, streets, and public places into Arabic; installing armed Arab tribes in evacuated Kurdish villages around Kirkuk to confront and attack Kurds; and terrorizing people and forcing them to flee their homes, in order for Arabs to live there. To accommodate the many deportees, “hundreds of housing units were constructed, and new districts developed, mostly for Arabs, Assyrians, and Armenians.” ( Talabany 2008: 7)

            Khanaqin city faced a similar process of demographic engineering and forcible deportation starting in 1923. First, the Ottoman Empire and then the Ba’ath party foreignized the Faylee Kurdish group and started deporting them from Khanaqin, home to most of the Faylee population. Several scholars ( Anderson and Stansfield 2009; Talabany 2001, 2008, 2007; Hassan 1947) have argued that the British facilitated the annexation of the Wilayet of Mosul to Baghdad. By this time, the League of Nations estimated that the Kurdish population had decreased from 75 per cent in 1921 to 63 per cent in 1925 ( Talabany 2001). After the discovery of oil in the region, Arabs, Assyrians, and Armenians moved to Kurdistan.

            Likewise, during the Monarchy era, the Iraqi government encouraged non-Kurds to move to Kirkuk and Khanaqin ( Talabany 2008). Growth in the oil trade between the Monarchy and Britain meant that the Kurds were increasingly seen “by authorities as threats to state security.” ( McGarry 1998: 613) Although the British at times indicated an interest in establishing an independent Kurdish government in Kurdistan, the first forcible deportation of Kurds—with genocidal violence by the British—occurred in 1932. The “British wanted to settle the Nestorian Christians [,] who had been expelled from Turkey in the vicinity of Barzan.” ( Arfa 1966: 20) Despite the opposition of Shaikh Ahmad, head of the Barzani tribe, the British force occupied the Barzan region and settled its supporters there; “Shaikh Ahmad was finally driven into Turkish territory with his family and followers.” ( Arfa 1966: 20) Oil provided a major motivation for the British to abrogate their support of an independent Kurdish state ( Anderson and Stansfield 2009: 20).

            The British Mandate terminated in 1932 after Iraq was accepted into the League of Nations as an independent state ( McDowall 1997). Its formal recognition led to an upsurge in Arab nationalism and intensified Arabization, which resulted in “the acquisition of new territory (or statehood).” ( McGarry 1998: 630) New houses and neighbourhoods were built in Kirkuk, often inside the oil fields. The state now began to bring Arab tribes into Kirkuk. Aiming to further protect the area around the pipelines running from Kirkuk to the southwest, they replaced Kurds with more reliable Arabs ( Anderson and Stansfield 2009). Like any oppressor, the new state of Iraq lacked a census or professional estimate of the population of Kurdistan, especially Kirkuk and Khanaqin. Talabany (2008) notes that the only reliable census taken in Iraq before the establishment of the Republic of Iraq was in 1957. This census reported that the population of Kirkuk “was 48.3 percent Kurd, 28.2 percent Arab, 21.4 percent Turkoman, and the rest Chaldean, Assyrian, or other” (8).

            The migration to and deportation from oil-rich regions, especially Kirkuk and Khanaqin, continued until 2003. The “newly arrived immigrants lived on significantly higher salaries than the indigenous Kirkukis who remained.” ( Anderson and Stansfield 2009: 32) Even the establishment of the Republic of Iraq in 1958, described as a golden age in the country’s history due to rapid progress in many areas, saw the Kurds excluded. Table 1 shows how, from the golden age of 1958 to the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, the Kurdish oil company employees in Kirkuk were substituted with Arabs and Turkmen due to hard form demographic engineering and control of population size.

            Table 1

            Number of workers in the Northern oil company in Kirkuk, 1958–2003.

            Source: Iraq Northern Oil Company, Staff Records. 2009 ( Ahmad 2014).

            The Second Phase of Demographic Engineering, 1958–1967

            The Kurds placed great hope in General Abdul-Karim Kasim’s July 1958 coup d’état ( Talabany 2008). This hope was soon dashed when extreme Arab nationalists were appointed to prominent positions in Kirkuk and other oil-rich areas. Moreover, the cultural genocide continued, as the language of instruction in these cities did not change ( Salih 2019).

            The united actions of the Arabs and Turkmen against the Kurds in Kirkuk indicate that these communities, particularly the Turkmen community, used bureaucratic methods to avoid Kurdish rights being accepted by the Republic, and legitimize their subjugation. Anderson and Stansfield (2009) note that Turkmen fears increased when Maarouf Barzinji, a Kurd, was appointed mayor of Kirkuk in July 1959, causing conflicts and animosities to rise between Kurds and Turkmens, leading to the eruption of a fight on July 14, 1959. The authors cite Hanna Batatu, a Palestinian historian specializing in the history of Iraq, to note that the official number killed was 31, of whom “all but 3 were Turkmens” (quoted in Anderson and Stansfield 2009: 34); however, “of the 28 people executed by the state for their involvement in the killings, only 4 were not Kurdish.” (ibid.)

            Turkmens leveraged this incident to oust the Kurdish mayor and occupy significant positions in Kirkuk. They also submitted secret reports to “the Ministry of Defense in Baghdad accusing the Kurds of causing unrest and of trying to find a so-called ‘Kurdish Republic’ which would be joined later by other areas of Kurdistan.” ( Talabany 2008: 11) This incident was linked to the evolution of nationalism in modern Iraq, as “modern state-directed movements are closely linked to the growth of nationalism.” ( McGarry 1998: 613) The pan-Arab nationalist general Nadhim Tabaqchali 4 took advantage of these events to concentrate on creating ethnic conflict and divisions between Kurds and Turkmens ( Salih 2020).

            Like prior Iraqi regimes, the Republic continued the hard and soft forms of demographic engineering and geopolitical shifts. The Kurds under the leadership of Mustafa Barzani, decided to start a confrontation that lasted from 1961 to 1975 ( Harris 1977; McDowall 1997). These actions were, however, unsuccessful: “the military move of the Barzanis was ultimately squashed by a determined, well-equipped central government.” ( Harris 1977: 112) During this period, with the rise of the Ba’ath Party to power in 1963, a new chapter of foreignization, forcible deportations, and genocide opened that did not close until 2003.

            The Third Phase of Demographic Destruction, 1963–1988

            This phase was the bloodiest in the history of Iraq, comprising several genocides and the destruction of 4,500 Kurdish villages and towns. Beginning in 1961, the Ba’ath Party effectively wielded power in Iraq. They began their rule by instituting a Nazi political culture and an “orgy of violence” ( Coughlin 2005: 41) against the Communist Party and Kurds, just as Hitler did as soon as he became chancellor, by criminalizing the opposition and attacking communists.

            A state may engage in the demographic engineering of an enemy group by destroying its homeland, making it impossible to survive. The Ba’ath regime began using this tactic in the 1960s. The first ethnic engineering and genocide of the Kurds by the Ba’ath party occurred in June 1963, under the command of al-Sadi; it “destroyed thirteen Kurdish villages around Kirkuk and expelled the population of another thirty-four Kurdish villages in the Dubz district near Kirkuk, replacing them with Arabs from central and southern Iraq.” ( Talabany 2007: 76) The party then set its sights on a lengthy process of deporting and foreignizing the Faylee Kurds, one briefly delayed when Ba’ath rule temporarily ended in 1966 due to internal ideological conflicts between high-ranked members over the challenges of establishing the Ba’athist state ( DeFronzo 2009).

            In 1968, however, the Ba’ath regained power under the leadership of Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, president of Iraq. They intensified the policies of ethnic cleansing and mass deportation in oil-rich regions. For example, in Khanaqin, they began transferring Kurdish teachers and employees to other parts of Iraq and replacing them with Arabs, before escalating to the murder of Kurdish politicians and the mass deportation and genocide of Faylees ( Salih 2020). The Ba’ath regime “forcibly deported more than 50,000 Faylee Kurds during 1969–1971.” ( McDowall 1997: 330) Human Rights Watch ( HRW 2004) notes that since the 1970s, such deportations have affected hundreds of thousands of Kurds. HRW further argues that the policy of forcible deportation, “known as ‘Arabization’ (ta’rib), was conducted in order to consolidate government control over the valuable oil resources and arable lands located in northern Iraq.” ( 2004: 7)

            In 1970, the Iraqi regime signed the March 11 Manifesto, also called the Iraqi-Kurdish autonomy agreement, with Mustafa Barzani, agreeing to a 15-point peace programme and disavowing any future plans to subject Kurds in Iraq to genocide or to identity and demographic engineering ( Yildiz 2012). However, in the same year, the regime transferred Kurdish officers from the Kirkuk district to Arab regions ( Mazhar 1987). To accommodate the many Arabs transferred to Kirkuk, the regime authorized “the construction of a further five hundred houses built next to Al-Kamarah and named Al-Muthna.” ( Anderson and Stansfield 2009: 39) The regime altered the identity of the city, just as the names of cities were Arabized during the Islamic invasion. Talabany (1995) notes that in 1972, the name “Kirkuk” was changed to “the Al-Ta’mim Governorate,” which means “Nationalization” and refers to the national ownership of the regional oil and natural gas reserves. The regime also widened streets in Kurdish neighbourhoods such as Shoreja. This was done to dispossess the Kurdish people of their lands and force them to leave the city, since only small amounts of compensation were provided ( Talabany 1995).

            In 1974, the Iraqi state enacted a draft Iraqi-Kurdish Autonomy manifesto that should have guaranteed an Autonomous Kurdish Region and given Kurd’s representation in the Iraqi government ( Harris 1977). However, Mustafa Barzani rejected the covenant because Kirkuk was excluded from the Kurdistan region and the agreement further enforced “the Arabization of the oil-producing areas around Khanaqin.” ( HRW 2004: 8) This increased tensions between Barzani and the Iraqi state, which in turn resulted in the dissolution of the Barzani’s Kurdish party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the collapse of negotiations, and the end of his political life in 1975 ( McDowall 2004).

            HRW reports from 1995 and 2004 suggest that following the collapse of Barzani and the KDP, “tens of thousands” (7) of Barzani tribespeople were forcibly removed from their villages and relocated to barren sites in the southern deserts. Further HRW reports noted that “[b]y the late 1970s, the Iraqi government had forcibly evacuated at least a quarter of a million Kurdish men, women, and children from areas bordering Iran and Turkey” (8). These villages were destroyed, and the inhabitants were deported and relocated to army-controlled areas.

            In 1975, the Iraqi regime relocated 279,000 Arabs from different parts of Iraq to Kirkuk. Thousands of Kurdish villagers on the Turkish-Iraqi and Iranian-Iraqi borders were forcibly relocated to collective camps in the south of Iraq and in the areas between the Kurdish and Arabic regions ( O’Leary 2005). Shortly thereafter, “in 1978 and 1979, 600 Kurdish villages were burned down, and around 200,000 Kurds were deported to other parts of the country.” ( Sluglett et al. 1984: 24)

            Saddam Hussein was highly influential within the Ba’ath party as a loyal and high-ranked Ba’athist even before becoming president of Iraq on July 16, 1979. In 1974, his main objective was to control the oil-rich province of Kirkuk. To this end, Anderson and Stansfield (2009: 28) suggest, in 1976, the Ba’ath regime turned its attention to detaching subdistricts such as Chamchamal, Tuz Khurmato, and Qader Karam from Kirkuk “by republican decree 41 of January 1976 and reapportion[ing] to [the] Salahadin governorate.” In 1980, the Ba’ath party began to link “the dominant Arab subdistricts of Mosul to Kirkuk such as Hajawa and Zab creating a clear Arab majority” (ibid.) The authors further note, “thousands of families [were] being paid to move to Kirkuk with the additional benefit of guaranteed housing and employment—usually in the administration of the government in the rapidly expanding security services.” ( Anderson and Stansfield 2009: 38)

            Thousands of Kurdish teachers and employees from Khanaqin were scattered among other Iraqi cities, and Arabs took their positions. Even in the Erbil, Suleimani, and Dehuk regions, the regime not only imposed techniques of assimilation—such as sending Kurdish students to the south of Iraq to continue their education—but deployed soft forms of demographic engineering to indirectly shift the identity of the targeted group (Morland 2016).

            However, Saddam Hussein did not believe in identity shifts, only the extinction of the entire Kurdish population. In fact, to avoid persecution, some Kurds in Khanaqin changed their ethnicity from Kurd to Arab without success. After the identity shift, the regime ordered them to fight or work with Iraqi intelligence services against their own community ( Salih 2019). Furthermore, in less than a year after his rise to power, Saddam Hussein institutionalized his atrocities against the Kurds via policy, under the slogan, “One Arab nation with an eternal message” ( Salih 2019) or the Arab oil for Arabs, and since they are not Arab, he foreignized them. For example, on May 7, 1980, with policy number 666, he foreignized Faylee Kurds and stripped them of Iraqi citizenship ( Appendix 1). Individuals named in this document as “not loyal to the homeland” were expelled to Iran, their possessions confiscated: “denationalization [or] deprivation of citizenship” ( Lemkin 1944: 80); From 1980 to 1990 alone, several hundred thousand Faylee Kurds were forcibly deported (Jafer 2016). The state seized their movable and immovable property, down to pocket money, and revoked their legal documents (Fisk 2002). These genocidal processes included physical genocide: 380,000 Faylees were murdered by the Ba’ath regime (Jafer 2016) and 15,000 Faylee youth were subjected to chemical and biological warfare experiments ( Salih 2020). According to the International Red Cross, from April 4, 1980, to May 19, 1990, about one million Kurds were deported to Iran after being accused of supporting that state ( Al-Fathal 2016).

            Before concluding the genocide of the Faylees, the regime also committed genocide against the Barzani Kurds in 1983. The Barzani genocide was a form of gendercide, resulting in the extermination of 8,000 men—an attempt at demographic destruction. The regime destroyed Barzani villages, confiscated their belongings, and forcibly resettled victims in the Bahirke and Qushtapa camps prior to the genocide process. A government document number 84 ( Appendix 2) from the Director of General Security to the Secretary of the commander in chief explains that males over the age of 15 from Barzani families were arrested and transported on August 1, 1983, to the Al-Quds, Al-Qadissiya, and Qushtapa compounds.

            The Ba’ath regime never stopped raiding or bombarding Kurdish villages. However, the Anfal genocide, from 1986 until early 1989, aimed at the extinction not only of the Kurds but also of Kurdistan. Besides the high number of Kurds killed, Genocide Watch noted that 17,000 people disappeared, and hundreds of thousands were forcibly transported to concentration camps. The property was also targeted for destruction: 4,500 Kurdish villages and at least 31 Assyrian villages were razed, despite being considered Iraq’s agricultural capitals. 90 per cent of Kurdish villages, as well as more than 20 small towns and cities, were completely destroyed ( HRW 1994: 14–115).

            The Halabja genocide on March 16, 1988, saw the murder of 5,000 Kurds and the displacement of 50,000 people, who mainly escaped to Iran ( HRW 2004; HRW 1994). It was also ecocide, a perpetual genocide, that resulted in the destruction of the entire region, including humans, animals, birds, and territory. The region’s water and soil were contaminated with chemicals to the extent that Halabja soil is still not as fertile as it once was (Salih 2005).

            From the beginning of its rule, the Ba’ath Party imposed a radical program of Arab nationalism and Arabization through genocidal violence and both hard and soft demographic engineering. However, Saddam Hussein’s regime introduced a new level of violence and replaced demographic engineering with a new goal: the total destruction of Kurdistan and the extermination of the Kurds as the final solution. The uprising of the Kurds in 1991 managed to save Kurdish cities from extermination. However, it could not spare Kurds in the oil-rich provinces such as Kirkuk and Khanaqin, which remained under Ba’athist control until 2003. This region is currently unprecedentedly unstable and is designated a disputed region under article 140 of the Iraqi constitution. According to this article, the status of disputed areas like Kirkuk remains under Iraq’s control, not the Kurdistan Regional Government, as is the case with oil-free cities.

            The Final Phase of Demographic Engineering, 1991–2003

            From 1991, Saddam’s regime “became increasingly sensitive to the existence of a meaningful de facto state in Kurdistan region.” ( Anderson and Stansfield 2009: 42) Thus, from 1991 to 2003, the regime took revenge on the Kurds in the oil-rich regions that remained under its control. It enacted various policies of assimilation, hard form demographic and identity engineering, deportation, and suppression.

            Numerous authors ( Carol 2015; Talabany 2007; HRW 2004) have noted that between 1991 and 2003, the Iraqi government expelled between 120,000 and 200,000 non-Arabs from Kirkuk and the surrounding areas. After the uprising, many “Arabs who occupied the Kurdish property fled Kirkuk, however, they [Iraqi regime] relocated them back to Kirkuk.” ( Anderson and Stansfield 2009). Talabany (2007: 76) remarks that the regime transferred the remaining oil company employees, civil servants, and teachers to southern and central Iraq, and established “thousands of new residential units for Arabs.” The regime also renamed Kurdish institutions and streets in Arabic and “forced businesses to adopt Arabic names” (ibid.)

            It is widely known in the region that many among the Turkish population, and to the present day, the Turkish regime, say “the best Kurd is a dead Kurd.” ( Baysal 2019) Saddam’s regime did not exclude even dead Kurds from its demographic engineering programs. Beginning in 1991, it began to Arabize the names of dead Kurds and “rewrite Kurdish tombstone inscriptions in Arabic in order to retroactively alter the demography.” ( Carol 2015: 264)

            For many years, the regime depended on the loyalty of Arab Sunnis to assist in the process of Arabization. However, following the uprising, the Ba’ath decided to also use Shi’ites as tools of demographic engineering. In 1991, the Iraqi state “created special cemeteries for Arab settlers and banned Arab Shi’ites from taking their dead back to Najaf for burial in order to bolster the Arab claim to the city.” ( Talabany 2007: 76) This act had two purposes: besides extending the ethnic conflict with the ongoing demographic and identity engineering of the Kurds, it also sought to disperse the Shi’ite population and dilute their power as a community.

            In 1996, while the Kurdish political ruling parties KDP and PUK were in chaos, fighting and killing one another in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) region, the Ba’ath regime intensified Arabization and ethnic cleansing by passing an “identity law” to force Kurds to become Arabs. The law was deployed on the populations of Kirkuk and Khanaqin through the distribution of a form called “ethnic identity correction.” (Talabany 2011: 78). Members of ethnic minority groups had to register themselves as Arabs. Kurds were not able to go to school or work or to keep their positions unless they changed their ethnic identity from Kurd to Arab. The state called this a “correction,” as if those subject to it had been registered incorrectly. Those who rejected this identity engineering policy were expelled from Kirkuk and other oil-rich areas, or deported from disputed territories including Khanaqin, Kirkuk, Baladrooz, Tooz, and Badra.

            In addition, the regime started to reconstruct Kurdish sites that remained under its control. In 1997, they began to destroy significant non-Arab structures in Kirkuk, like “Kirkuk’s historic citadel with its mosques and ancient church.” ( Carol 2015: 268)

            Another wave of genocidal demographic engineering started eight years after the uprising and the emergence of Kurdish self-governance. The US State Department reported that the Iraqi government had displaced approximately 900,000 Kurdish and Turkmen families throughout Iraq ( Carol 2015; Talabany 2011). They indicated that “[l]ocal officials in the south have ordered the arrest of any official or citizen who provides employment, food, or shelter to newly arriving Kurds.” ( Talabany 2007: 12) In 1991–2003, the positions of the Kurds remained perilous in the Kurdish regions still under state control until the collapse of the Ba’ath regime in April 2003, when coalition forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga liberated Kirkuk and Khanaqin from the dictatorship; however, these regions have not been liberated from the patterns of violence propagated by the regime and the inherited dominant group.

            Scholars ( Talabany 1995, 2001, 2008; Amin 2008; Al-Hamawi 1995; Yawer 2009) examining modern-day Iraq have summarized the motivations behind both soft and hard forms of demographic engineering and geopolitical shifts as follows: (a) religion—forcing Islam on the population; (b) economics—the story of the Battle of Beder and chapter 8 of the Quran, on the spoils of war, indicate that in the pre-modern period, most Arab tribes followed Islam in order to share in looting and the spoils of the war. Likewise, in modern times, many Arabs have followed various authority figures for the opportunity to dispossess non-Arab peoples such as Kurds of their property; (c) the Caliphate state—Arab tribes and families relocated to Kurdish regions to participate in its administration; (d) the military—many Arab tribes were trained and relocated to Kurdistan to guard against unexpected Kurdish uprisings; (e) politics—in ancient days, Arab tribes had power conflicts among themselves; each tribe attempted to recruit more members, then relocate them to protect their political power in their region. In modern-day Iraq, Arabization has been used as an instrument of occupation and genocide, and to unify Arabs.


            The Kurds experienced both soft and hard forms of demographic engineering, from the Islamic invasion to the collapse of the Ba’ath Party and Saddam Hussein’s power in Iraq. This article argues that the Kurds experienced both hard and soft forms of demographic and ethnic engineering from the time of the Ottoman Empire to the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. Hard demographic engineering, as defined by Morland (2016), is a direct alteration in a territory’s demographics by increasing or lowering population size. The soft approach is deceptive, causing ethnic groups’ identities to shift. The article briefly revisits both the Ottoman periods to show how the goal of ethnic cleansing, through soft and hard forms of demographic engineering, began with the Islamic invasion, continued during the Ottoman Empire, and expanded with the evolution of pan-Arab nationalism in Iraq from 1932 on. However, with the rise of the Ba’ath Party to power, and especially during the second round of Ba’ath authority, beginning in 1968, the third form of demographic engineering became dominant, one premised on the extinction of the Kurds. With the break-up of the Kurdish movements in Iraq in the 1970s, it took the form of genocidal actions. Besides extensive Arabization, forcible geopolitical shifts, deportation, and foreignization, the Ba’ath party committed several acts of genocide against the Kurds, including the Faylee group and Barzani group genocides, Halabja, and the Anfal genocide. At each stage, the demographic engineering of the Kurds in Iraq was not only a technique of conflict regulation but also a method of geopolitical and ethnic identity shifting or extermination. This is because, in most cases, demographic engineering itself is one of the most effective methods of genocide.


            Appendix 1: The Revolutionary Command Council Document on Dropping the Iraqi nationality ID from Faylees, 1980.

            Resolution No. 666 of 07.05.1980

            Date of entry into force: 1980

            In accordance with the provisions of para (a) of Article 42 of the Interim Constitution,

            The Revolutionary Command Council have decided in their session held on 07.05.1980 the following:

            1. The Iraqi nationality shall be dropped from any Iraqi of foreign origin if it has appeared that he is not loyal to the homeland, people, higher national and social objectives of the Revolution.

            2. The Minister of Interior must order anyone whose Iraqi Nationality has been dropped under para 1 unless he is convinced according to sufficient reasons that his stay in Iraq is a matter required by judicial or legal necessity or for the preservation of the rights of other persons which are officially authenticated.

            3. The Minister of Interior shall undertake to execute this resolution.

            Saddam Hussein

            Chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council

            Appendix 2: The first part of Document 84 regarding the genocide of Director of General Security to the Secretary of the Commander in Chief regarding Barzani gendercide on August 1, 1983.

            Document Number: 84

            Date: 29/03/1989, Hijra date: 22/08/1409

            Mr Secretary of the commander in chief, the respectable Salutations

            Upon your Excellency’s request below is the information at hand about the town of Harir in the governorate of Erbil…

            In July, 1983 during an Iranian, Zionist aggression on Haj Umran front and as substantiated the participation of the clique descendants of treason the fraction who are mostly from Barzani family an order from the former Director of Public security “Dr Fadhel Al-Barrak” to the Directorate of General Security in the autonomous region to assemble a big unit from members of the security from units and directorates of the autonomous region on a top secret mission to commence at down on the next day. The mission commenced on 1/8/1983 with members of the Republican Guards to surround Al-Quds, Al-Qadissiya, Qushtappa compounds, which were specifically built for Barzani families. All males from Barzani families over the age of 15 were arrested and transported using big vehicles prepared for this mission accompanied by military force.

            In the same manner more Barzanis from Harir camps in Shaqlawa front were arrested, those included 403 from Barzani, Sherwani and Mizori fraction who are also Barzani clan. More were arrested from Diyana complex in Rawandooz front and “Mergasor” in Erbil governorate.


            I am indebted to the anonymous reviewers and the staff of the State Crime Journal for their insightful remarks and ideas.



            This article is based on Chapter 10 of my unpublished Ph.D. thesis that was submitted to the Cultural Studies Graduate Program in conformity with the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in 2020.


            Most English sources have used the word Vilayet. It somehow has been used in Persian accent, where they pronounce the W as V. However, it is incorrect. The correct spelling is Wilayet with “W” because the original word is Arabic, is written and pronounced as Wilayet, which means state.


            Hassan Arfa was a Persian officer who fought for years against the Kurds in the frontier districts. He was also Chief of Staff of the Iranian Army (1944–46) and Ambassador to Turkey (1958–61).


            Tabaqchali and eighteen other high-ranking pan-Arab nationalists were executed on September 20, 1959, for their roles in the Mosul Uprising in March 1959. The Uprising sought to depose then Iraqi Prime Minister Abd al-Karim Qasim, because he was not an orthodox nationalist Arab ( Marr 2011; Dawisha 2009).


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            Author and article information

            State Crime Journal
            Pluto Journals
            8 November 2022
            1 January 2022
            : 11
            : 2
            : 188-208
            [1-statecrime.11.2.0188]Queens University, Canada
            © 2022 Kaziwa Salih

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            Page count
            Pages: 21

            Iraq,Kurdish,oil-rich regions,Kirkuk,Khanaqin,demographic engineering,soft and hard forms,Paul Morland


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