ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Iraq’s Faili Kurds are caught between the two worlds of Sunni-majority Kurdistan Region and Shia-majority Iraq. Not entirely feeling at home in either of them, Faili Kurds wonder what the future holds for them as the country heads towards a major shake-up.
“In the Kurdistan Region, we are not given enough attention because of being Shiites. In the south of Iraq, they don’t care about us because they say ‘these guys are Kurds’,” said Ali Hussein Faili, head of Shafaq news and a former MP in the Kurdistan Region.
Faili Kurds are Shiites who have mainly lived in the south in Baghdad and some of the disputed areas on the southern edge of the Kurdistan Region. There is also a large population in Iran.
In Iraq and the Kurdistan Region, they were wealthy leaders of the business community and strong supporters of Kurdish independence movements. That, along with their Shiite faith, made them the target of persecution by the regime of Saddam Hussein which is now labeled as genocide by an Iraqi high court.
Thousands were killed and as many as 1.4 million were stripped of their citizenship and deported to Iran between the 1960s and 1980. After the overthrow of Hussein’s regime, less than 15,000 have returned. Today many Faili Kurds still do not have citizenship documents. They feel dismissed by both Erbil and Baghdad.
They are a part of both worlds, but don’t feel they belong in either.
Not full citizens in their homeland
The historical home of Faili Kurds is areas long considered disputed territories between Iraq and Kurdistan Region such as Khanaqin and Mandali along the border with Iran.
Unlike the disputed areas of Kirkuk and Shingal, these regions are not often brought up in public discussions, points out Aras Jawad Kazim, a Faili journalist, born as a refugee in Iran and now living in Baghdad. So their fate in or out of a future Kurdistan state is unclear.
Faili Kurds who returned to Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein and were issued citizenship documents by the central government have difficulties moving to the Kurdistan Region where persons from Iraq must receive permission from the Interior Ministry or be sponsored by a local citizen.
This means that Faili Kurds who want to live in the Kurdistan Region face an uphill battle for basic things like getting a job or buying property.
“The question is why a Faili Kurd in Erbil cannot be a taxi driver. Why he cannot be a pick-up driver. Why would they not be admitted into the Kurdistan Region’s universities if they had studied in Baghdad? These are basic rights of any citizen,” stated Ali Hussein Faili.
“How could this be - you allowed me to become a member of parliament, but not to be a taxi driver?”
The case of the Faili Kurds boils down to this citizenship document, he said. “You are either an ordinary citizen or not. If you cannot choose to do some professions, what does this mean? They should explain this to us so that we can convince our people that they are not different.”
Though the Faili Kurds have grievances in the Kurdistan Region, they do feel safe living here, where they are home.
“Those who live in the Kurdistan Region have strong ties to it and are patriotic towards it,” said Asraa Mohammed Hussein Faili, President of the Faili Kurd Organization in Sulaimani. Many of her cousins were hanged by the regime and her family expelled to Iran in April 1980.
Faili Kurds do not feel the same security in southern Iraq or Baghdad.
Hiding Kurdish identity in Iraq
“I am in the south of Iraq. I will face problems if people hear me speaking Kurdish,” a Faili man said when we called him, fear evident in his voice as he declined to answer questions.
Faili Kurds living in Baghdad and other areas of southern Iraq are under pressure to hide their Kurdish identity. They cannot speak their language in public, identify themselves as Kurds, and certainly cannot support Kurdish statehood aspirations.
There have been kidnappings and loss of property. The situation worsens during disputes between Erbil and Baghdad. When the Kurdistan Region takes a step forward, Faili Kurds in Iraq say they get hit back.
“When there is a dispute between the Kurdistan Region and Iraq, we face threats and too much pressure in Baghdad by Iraqi government,” said Kazim.
Faili Kurds who returned to Iraq after the collapse of Hussein’s regime hoped for a better future. More than thirteen years later, they are still treated like foreigners.
When applying for Iraqi identity cards they are sent to the fourth floor of the office where applications from foreigners are processed.
“There is no difference between us and a Bangladeshi person,” said Kazim.
This was not always the case. Faili Kurds have a long history in the political and business spheres. When Iraq was created out of the fallen Ottoman Empire, a Faili Kurd named Walli Pshti was one of the five candidates for king.
One of the reasons Faili Kurds were targeted under Saddam Hussein was because they were economically active in Iraq while involved in Kurdistan independence movements and had ties with Iran. All these ties made them a threat.
Those same ties, however, should allow the diaspora of Kurds living in Baghdad to serve as a bridge for relations between the Iraqi central government and the KRG. Faili Kurds of today believe so. They envision a role as Kurdish ambassadors in Baghdad, on a citizen-to-citizen level if not officially, a role that will be key as Kurdistan seeks independence.
“Faili Kurds have a strategic importance for Kurdistan, and will have the same role for Kurdistan independence in the future,” said Kazim.
The KRG welcomes this role.
“For us, it’s important that the Kurdish community in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq that they exist, they support and also they lobby for this. They communicate with their neighbours, with their friends, with their families, so that they understand that we are a peaceful nation,” said Falah Mustafa, head of the KRG’s foreign relations department, speaking of campaigning for Kurdistan independence.
Given past history, they are not without their fears, however.
Faili Kurds living in Iraq wonder what will happen to them if the Kurdistan Region declares a state. “Will they face another genocide? Because they are Kurds, will they become victim of the process the Kurdistan Region undertakes?” asks Kazim.
At the same time, they hope to be welcomed as full citizens in an independent Kurdistan where they can finally put the hardship of the past behind them.
“Kurdistan is the land of all those communities who have lived in Kurdistan, whether they live on Kurdistani soil or in other parts of Iraq.” Mustafa said.
For the Faili Kurds of Iraq, “the only place we can truly belong is with our fellow Kurds” in Kurdistan, said Asraa Mohammed Hussein Faili.
In Baghdad, Faili Kurds are hoping to be able to vote in the Kurdistan independence referendum on September 25, to have their say in creating a country that they could finally call home.
“If Kurdistan becomes independent, for the first time in a century we will have our Kurdistani identity, which is the simple and main right for us,” said Kazim.
“We have Kurdish blood in our veins that cannot be denied.”
Bahman Hassan in Baghdad contributed to this report.