International Herald Tribune

Iraq's Displaced: A Test for Democracy

At Washington's initiative, delegates from Iraqi opposition groups worked out a plan in London in December for governing Iraq should Saddam Hussein's regime collapse. Their declared aims are democratic, but one sure way to find out is to ask how they will deal with more than a million people who have already been forcibly displaced inside the country.

For 30 years Iraq has used expulsion as an instrument of state policy to take over oil-rich and fertile land, punish and subdue recalcitrant populations, and stamp out political opposition. The main victims were the Kurds and members of the Shiite majority, including the Marsh Arabs, but the regime also targeted the smaller Turkmen and Assyrian minorities.

Beginning in the late 1970s, Saddam's government forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands of Kurds, Iraq's largest minority, destroyed 4,000 of their villages, and sprayed more than 200 of these with chemical weapons. Most of the nearly 800,000 Kurds displaced in the north cannot return to their homes because of the widespread destruction of their villages, the planting of landmines and continued occupation of their lands by Iraqi security forces.

A responsible new government will have to work with the Kurdish authorities to remove mines and rebuild the countryside and enable Kurds to reclaim their lands. It will have to reverse Saddam's discriminatory "Arabization" policy, which has ousted more than 100,000 Kurds, Turkmen and Assyrians from the oil-rich and fertile region of Kirkuk and replaced them with Arabs. Kurdish leaders have vowed to reestablish their control there, while Turkmen look to Turkey to reinstate their interests. Arabs now established there will seek to retain their monopoly.

To manage such explosive claims, a representative ethnic and religious body will have to be set up to help the displaced regain their land and property. The returns will have to be coordinated to prevent a rush on the area, with legal procedures set up to adjudicate property disputes and oil revenues set aside to compensate those who were expelled or arbitrarily dismissed from the oil industry.

Similarly, the return of thousands of Shiite Arabs, expelled from their homes in Baghdad, Basra and other areas on political grounds, will have to be addressed. And efforts will have to be made to repair at least part of the damage done to Iraq's Marsh Arabs. Baghdad brutally destroyed their habitat along the lower Tigris and Euphrates rivers, forcibly uprooting at least 200,000 people. It coupled massive engineering projects to drain water from the oil-rich marshes with the shelling and burning of villages, the poisoning of fishing grounds, and the assassination and abduction of local leaders.

Although it would be difficult to recreate the marshes, consultations should be held with the former inhabitants and a feasibility study done to see whether at least some of the marshes could be reflooded. For those who cannot return, compensation should be paid from oil revenues.

Even before a change of regime, Iraq's opposition should be pressing the United Nations to devote more aid to the displaced. The UN Oil for Food Program, the largest humanitarian assistance program in the world, generates $6 billion a year for civilian goods. Isn't it time for the United Nations used its leverage to extract a price for the benefits the Iraqi government receives? When the United Nations kowtows to Baghdad's threats and intimidation, it is the displaced who suffer. UN officials should protest all new displacement, insist upon unrestricted access to those uprooted, publish data on their conditions and assure them better shelter and health care.

Iraq's internally displaced constitute too large a group to be ignored. Their problems touch upon the central issues of water, land, oil, minority and majority rights, ethnicity and religion, citizenship and national allegiance, and systems of justice. If their plight is not addressed fairly, there will be little prospect for a stable and democratic Iraq. Too little has been said about them by Iraq's democratic opposition.