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Dream of happy return stalled for many Kurds

Obstacles remain for those who fled

KIRKUK, Iraq -- Halal Abdul Khalaq lives in a mud and concrete hut behind a soccer stadium, waiting for a break in the violence to start building her dream.

Three years ago she returned to a homeland she and her parents fled when she was only a baby. They were running decades ago from Saddam Hussein's persecution of the Kurds.

Hundreds of other Kurds have joined Abdul Khalaq in the anxious but miserable wait to reclaim their past.

Hussein's bid to turn oil-rich Kirkuk into an Arab city forced Kurds to flee by the tens of thousands during the 1980s and 1990s.

After the US-led invasion in 2003, the refugees streamed back with house keys in hand -- and found their homes sold or given outright to Arabs.

Some returned to exile in Kurdish territory farther north, but others, like Abdul Khalaq, stayed and built shantytowns in which to wait it out.

"We're happy to be home, and we're safe here, but as far as living conditions, we're suffering," Abdul Khalaq, 22, said yesterday as she cradled the child she bore two years ago in a hut without running water.

This is what she knows of her fabled hometown: poverty, gunfire in the distance, and occasional patrols by US soldiers who pass out food and soccer balls to children.

"I see my child barefoot, and I know I want a better life -- the one that was promised to us. I don't care whether it's in Kurdistan or Iraq," Abdul Khalaq said.

Kurds say they are the dominant population group in Kirkuk, but geography works against them.

The city lies just south of the Kurdish autonomous region stretching across Iraq's northeast.

Kurdish leaders want to annex the city, but Iraq's new constitution calls for a census and referendum on the issue by the end of next year.

Until then, it remains a demographics game.

The new Iraqi government has adopted a policy of "normalizing" Kirkuk -- repatriating Kurds expelled by Hussein and resettling Arabs to outlying villages or to their ancestral homes to the south.

But the process is slow: Some 100,000 claims have been filed by Kurds who have returned to Kirkuk since 2003, and local officials are processing fewer than 30 a month, said Lieutenant Colonel Michael Browder with the US Army's Second Battalion, 35th Infantry Division. Browder, 45, of Clarksville, Tenn., trains Iraqi police in Kirkuk.

"Officials are learning the democratic process, but it takes time, and meanwhile the Kurds are piling in," he said.

Violence has also derailed progress. While the killing is nowhere near the level in Baghdad, bombings and shootings have increased in recent months as Kurds and Arabs struggle for power ahead of the 2007 referendum.

In the past 90 days, Kirkuk has seen some 20 car bombs resulting in about 300 civilian casualties, Browder said.

Kurds like Abdul Khalaq are, thus, in limbo -- home but homeless and feeling betrayed.

Kurdish leaders "encouraged us to come back, but they don't care about citizens like us. We're just a number," she said, wringing her hands and then stopping to brush away flies from her son's face.

"We want Kurdish leaders to help us as they promised, to help us get out of this place," said Amir Mustapha, 27, who also lives in the soccer stadium's shadow.

"The Kurdish government, coalition forces, the Baghdad government -- whoever. Someone has to help us."

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