Khanaqin's iconic bridge over the Alwand River. Photo: Rezgar Khanaqini
KHANAQIN, Kurdistan Region – The war against the Islamic State (ISIS) has increased the Arab population of Khanaqin threefold. But because the numbers are still very small, the mayor of this city in the Kurdistan Region does not see this as a source of concern.
“Khanaqin will not become Arabized again, this is not a premeditated occurrence,” said Mayor Muhammad Amin Hassan Hussein, noting that the city’s Arab population had gone up because of the fighting from one percent to three percent.
Khanaqin, located in the Garmaser region, was previously part of Kirkuk province. But it was annexed to Diyala province after the Arabization process began by ousted dictator Saddam Hussein. It was the only place that recovered quickly from this process after Saddam fall in 2003.
“After Saddam’s fall only one percent of the population of Khanaqin was Arab, and those were the original residents of Khanaqin,” the mayor said.
The city’s original residents speak proudly about the mixed ethnicity that used to exist in Khanaqin, with Shiite and Sunni neighbors living peacefully together. Abbas, 59, said that until recently he had not noticed the difference between the city’s Shiites and Sunnis.
“The blood of the Shiites and Sunnis in Khanaqin is mixed,” Abbas said about predominantly Shiite city. “Sometimes, when a senior Shiite leader needed blood in the hospital, he was given Sunni blood.”
Muhammad, a 65-year-old teacher, said: “All the different views and beliefs have lived next to one another and worked together. I was a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party from the outset, but my friends were members of the Communist party. Khanaqin was a city of tolerance.”
But that tolerance does not seem to have passed on to the new generations. The city’s young deny there are differences between Shiites and Sunnis. But the sectarian accessories and symbols they attach to their cars and bicycles, speak otherwise.
Muhammad noted one such example with concern.
“The Peshmerga forces have been present in this city for many years, but I have never seen the youth of Khanaqin queue to take a photo with the Peshmerga commanders,” he said. “But since the Shiite militias came, the young were competing to see who would be the first to take a photo with the Shiite commanders.”
The mayor of Khanaqin, working out of a smoke-filled office with a broken air condition and sometimes without electricity, is often criticized for the policy of land distribution in the city. The residents even joke about this issue.
“I have distributed 17,000 land plots among the Kurds and I am not sorry about it. We might also have given some land plots to the original Arad residents as well, who were really good with the Kurds,” said the mayor, who admitted to problems governing without a proper budget.
Khanaqin lies in the so-called “disputed territories” that are claimed by both Baghdad and Erbil.
“Baghdad does not send us anything and there is no money in Erbil, either. We are kind of governing in a decentralized way,” Hussein said.
Many Arab refugees are seen walking in the markets of Khanaqin. They came because of the ongoing war with ISIS in Salahaddin, Diyala and Mosul.
“The security that we have here is something that we never had back in our cities,” said one refugee. “I can come out in the middle of the night and no one would ask if I was an Arab or Kurd. I feel at home here.”
The mayor of does not share the concerns about the increasing number of Arabs in Khanaqin, saying they had come out of necessity, and not as part of another Arabization plan.
The Arabs who come to Khanaqin cannot own properties, he explained. “Not only this, even if they wanted to buy vehicles they cannot have it in their own names. Also, none of them is given food ration certificates or any other document that would tie them to Khanaqin,” said the mayor.
He did admit, however, that for the refugees to return to their original homes would take time.