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Anti-Arab protest erupts in Erbil

Anti-Arab sentiment has been generated by fears over the advancement of the Islamic State over Iraq towards Kurdish regions
Kurds have historically been the victims of persecution across much of the Arab world (MEE/Matthew Vickery)

ERBIL - Tensions came to a peak Saturday afternoon, as hundreds of young Kurds weaved in and out of cars, hunting out Arabs in Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital, Erbil.

The young men, marching in anger at the increasing number of Arabs in Iraqi Kurdistan, began their pursuit in Erbil’s Arab Quarter.

Protestors chanted “Arabs are traitors,” and other anti-Arab slogans while they marched, periodically stopping near a known Arab apartment or business and intensifying their chants, some throwing stones at the buildings and windows, until police dispersed the crowd with tazers and batons.

With Islamic State militants making extensive gains to the west of Erbil after Kurdish Peshmerga forces retreated to official Kurdistan Regional Government borders, the Islamic State now virtually controls all of the Nineveh plains, causing tensions to escalate in Erbil.  .

Police are now armed, and there is a constant on-patrol Peshmerga presence in the city center. Residents have expressed fears that even if the Islamic State cannot takeover Erbil—which seems highly unlikely considering recent United States involvement—that the usually safe city will become a target of car bombs, a tactic, the Islamic State has used to deadly effect in the cities of Baghdad and Kirkuk where they have been unable to gain control.

Protestors told Middle East Eye that the demonstration, which had a mob atmosphere, was a reaction to the thousands of Arab refugees who had fled into the Kurdish autonomous region recently seeking safety from the sweeping onslaught of Islamic State militants.

“We don’t want the Arabs here because they are all spies,” one protestor told MEE. “They come here to Kurdistan like they are refugees, but we know most of them are working with the Islamic State. If it was the other way, they wouldn’t help us, in the past they have killed us, we don’t want to help them.”

The belief that Iraqi refugees in Erbil were in the Kurdish region as spies for the Islamic State was widespread, with many protestors holding signs in Arabic and Kurdish that read, “You are spies, we are saving you and you are helping Da’ash [Islamic State].”

After police dispersed the group away from the Arab quarter of the city, protestors set up their own manned checkpoint in the city center beside the historic citadel. Lining up along one of the one-way main roads, Kurdish youth ensured there was no escape for oncoming traffic, with dozens stopping each car by surrounding it as it approached.

The edgy crowd was ready to erupt at any moment. Drivers that were designated as potentially Arab, were screamed at and questioned by angry youth to see if they could communicate in fluent Kurdish. Drivers appeared frightened and desperate to prove they were Kurdish and not Arab, as menacing looks loomed over the car windows.

When an Arab driver, or taxi with Arab customers in it, was caught in the makeshift checkpoint, whistles and shouts were thrown in the air to masses of young Kurds who were milling around ready to answer their peers’ calls for backup. Young men would start running and screaming towards the car, beating on the hood and throwing drinks and lit cigarettes at drivers until the police finally caught up to chase them off and stop a potential hate attack.

One police officer, who spoke under the promise of anonymity, told MEE that he was appalled by the protestor’s actions.

“I think it is disgusting what they are doing here,” he said. “The government is offering help to refugees, these people need our help. We [the police] are here to keep everyone safe, we are more busy now with more patrols and now we have to deal with these kids too.”

Days before the demonstration there were rumours that the police in Erbil would attempt to ban the protest, but it seemed there was little the police force could do once demonstrators took to the streets.

Iraqis subjected to daily discrimination

Hayder Aroomi, a Sunni Arab, has lived in Erbil for two years now. He fled to the Kurdish region when he said Shia Muslims began attacking Sunnis in his hometown near Baghdad. Aroomi said he has always been treated differently in Kurdish Iraq, but he has never felt unsafe like he does now.

“I work for half the minimum wage here, it isn’t enough to rent an apartment so I sleep on the floor at the tobacco pipe café where I work,” Aroomi said. “It is not a good life but at least I am safe.”

Last week, Aroomi was assaulted inside the cafe where he works after a customer realized he was an Arab and couldn’t speak Kurdish. He said the man began to shout and hit him before throwing a glass toward him, which shattered against the wall, slicing his chest and fingers with broken shards.

“The cuts were actually very deep. I couldn’t afford to go to the hospital on my wages, so my friends just bandaged me up, I will be okay,” Aroomi said. “I couldn’t fight back. I didn’t dare. I just tried to protect myself because I am here illegally because my visa has expired, so if I tried to go to the police I would be deported. There was nothing I could do.”

As anti-Arab sentiments have increased with the recent influx of Iraqi refugees in the Kurdish region, Aroomi has changed his regular routine. He is weary of going out alone at night or speaking to people about his nationality and past. Because he speaks no Kurdish, only Arabic, he feels he is an easy target, and could be attacked again at any point, and in a way that could seriously endanger his life.

On the night of the protest, Aroomi didn’t dare leave his cafe.

“I couldn’t leave tonight, I don’t speak Kurdish, if they tried to speak with me they would immediately know I am Arab and then I don’t know what would happen,” Aroomi said.

Aroomi said he and his other Iraqi Arab friends are considering moving back to Baghdad until the conflict and atmosphere in the city settles down. He is caught between two hard decisions: unsure if it is better to risk staying in Erbil illegally where he is now terrified of being violently attacked again, or going back to the town he left, where a threat to his life still exists. It is a decision he never thought he would have to make.

As the Islamic State creates a refugee crisis in the North of Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, with over one million already having fled the advancing militants, the lives of both new refugees and old are being held in the balance. With the Islamic State reportedly earning 3 million USD a day and holding more advanced weaponry than Kurdish Peshmerga forces, the militants don’t look like they will disappear anytime soon—nor does the anti-Arab mentality beginning to simmer up in the usually quiet city of Erbil.

Video by Abed al-Qaisi:

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