Locked out of Baghdad: The Faili Saga

The 2003 removal of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein triggered a host of changes to the state and entirety of the Middle East. One of the more positive developments within post-Ba’athist Iraq has been the steady improvement in conditions for the Kurdish population and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). While the internationally recognised semi-autonomous zone, Kurdistan, has been enjoying remarkable diplomatic and economic growth post Saddam, the same level of success cannot be said of Kurds living outside of the Kurdistan region, and particularly those that are also members of minority religious communities. One such group that has faced substantial difficulty is the Faili Kurdish population of Baghdad. Hassan, a Faili refugee, and his family put a face to the current legal battle, as well as the grievances suffered under the Ba’ath Regime.

Faili Kurds currently exist in a literal and figurative ‘grey zone’, trapped along the borders of states, religions, ethnic groups, and political institutions. Currently, most Faili belong to a global diaspora, many of whom are desperate to return home to Baghdad, yet bureaucratic roadblocks have contributed to the continual predicament of the group following the ‘liberation’ of Iraq. As a result, the community is scattered and unable to band together and establish truly effective group representation which may help to resolve the most pressing issues; statelessness and a lack of repayment of funds which were illegally seized by the past government. Even a rough estimate of the number of Faili currently in Baghdad is highly disputed and further complicated by members also fearing that they may fall victim to terrorist acts due to their Faili heritage.1 As the Faili predominately subscribe to Shi’a Islam, as well as some folk traditions, they also differ from the beliefs observed by most Sunni Kurds, which has meant that they have sometimes been deemed as religiously ‘lax’ or ‘heretics.’2 Since the 1970s, the Ba’ath Party under Saddam Hussein used Faili Kurds as human collateral and branded them as spies hailing from Iran, Iraq, and the KRG.3 While individuals were expelled from Iraq under suspicion of having a relationship with Iran, the Australian Government Department of Immigration and Citizenship reports that Faili currently “fear persecution by the Iranian authorities on the basis of their former citizenship in Iraq… and their statelessness.”4

Faili Kurds were first made stateless and stripped of their nationality and citizenship by a calculated Ba’athist campaign which began in the late 1970s to 1988. Their persecution was a consequence of the prominence of Faili Kurds within the Baghdad Chamber of Commerce and the bustling textile industry, which led them to become perceived as an economic threat to the regime; this connection to the Baghdad Chamber of Commerce was cited to the British House of Lords as a “principle factor” in Hussein’s attack on the group.5 However, the perception of a tie to neighbouring Iran during the Iran-Iraq War proved to be most troublesome for the group. As the Faili’s ‘roots’ were considered to lie in the Zagros mountains, which straddle the border of Iraq and Iran, they were conveniently scapegoated by the Ba’athist regime to reflect both anti-Persian/Shi’a and anti-Kurdish sentiments. Anti-Kurdish regulations connected to the wider campaign against the Kurds, which culminated in the Anfal Campaign and the use of chemical weapons during the Halabja massacre, also impacted the Faili community. Still, all roads led to Iran. Using the mutual Shi’a religious affiliation shared by Faili Kurds and Iran as an excuse, Faili were accused by the Ba’ath Regime of being spies for Iran during the Iran-Iraq War, and thus as a grave threat to the security of the state.6 This pretext gave the Party ‘permission’ to deport civilians en masse and to confiscate all homes, properties, businesses, assets, and possessions. With the exception of those who changed their names and denied any tribal or familial association, all Faili were crudely and systematically crowded into trucks, destined for immediate execution or destitution. Survivors were literally tossed over the border into Iran, thus beginning one of the world’s longest-standing refugee populations.7 These experiences have left a deep scar on the psyche of the community, and a larger distrust and disillusionment towards governmental figures which remains to this day.

As expected, those who have remained in the refugee camps for nearly thirty years have been eager to return to Baghdad following the US invasion. Faili have also expressed a desire to have the crimes committed against the community recognised on a global scale, as well as seeking the reinstatement of their citizenship and their illegally confiscated funds and property. The Iraqi government has been commendable and largely effective in its efforts to reinstate citizenship and formally recognise the atrocities committed, but the socio-economic issues plaguing the Faili community are severe. Returning refugees have faced a bitter, ill-received homecoming as they find their homes occupied and many report being threatened with fatal force if they attempt to approach.8 Despite Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s October 2011 declaration that all funds confiscated by the Ba’ath Regime would be “paid back” to the Faili community, no such progress has been made.9 There are virtually no reports of actual funds being transferred to eligible families. Instead, an already desolate population has been dragged through a harrowing legal battle in a hostile city. This is embodied by Hassan, a Faili refugee currently living in Syria after initially being exiled to Iran, who is so desperate to access his illegally confiscated funds to enable his family to flee from civil war-torn Syria that he has continually taken great risk to travel to Baghdad for multiple hearings.10

Rampant corruption and blatant advantage- taking of a disenfranchised group has occurred alongside acts of ethnically motivated terror. The Faili community have not been spared from systemic violence and on going turmoil in Baghdad. Returning refugees have endured additional trauma in the form of bombings targeting the Faili-dominated Sedriya, Baghdad neighbourhood. In one of the most devastating acts of terror in Iraq post-2003, five hundred civilians were killed in the Sedriya bombings which were reportedly carried out by members of al-Qaeda in a multi-pronged attack on a community which is Shi’a, Kurdish, and Yazidi.11 In October of 2010, twenty-one Faili Kurds were killed by a suicide bomber northeast of Baghdad in a targeted attack to “stir up sectarian violence.”12 These efforts are designed to inflame groups, establish divisions, and eventually eradicate minority groups or intimidate survivors to the point that they will flee the region. In light of these attacks, Faili groups have accused both the Iraqi Federal Government and Kurdish Regional Government of not taking the proper measures to protect Kurdish minority communities living outside of Kurdistan.

Chronic under-representation has contributed to a lack of sufficient governmental support of Faili communities, and this is proving to be a cyclical issue. Reports indicate that the numbers of returning Faili refugees who chose to remain and settle in Iraq after making an initial attempt after the removal of Saddam have remained low.13 This is due to several logistical factors. Most Faili continue to be severely disenfranchised after decades in refugee camps, and were met with extreme hostility when attempting to regain their homes and belongings. As a direct result, many returning Faili have subsequently attempted to emigrate, sought the assistance of international non-governmental organisations for basic provisions, or fled to neighbouring states.14 Low population figures then limit the size of their potential vote and, consequently, fail to ensure sufficient representation to attend to the needs of the community.

The most pressing need is a return of the funds and properties which are owed to the individual families, so that they may be permitted to move forward with their lives and past the grievances committed against them. Baghdad KDP Official Muhammed Alin Daloyee commented that many Faili had emigrated to Europe and the United States, and were thus removed from the Baghdad political atmosphere and that the community should not be considered.15 While it is valid that the majority of those who have relocated to Europe and the United States would most likely not relocate to Baghdad if the current security crisis continues, Daloyee’s argument completely ignores that they are still fully entitled to everything which was confiscated by the Ba’ath Regime, and this restoration requires Faili representation in the absence of attention being paid to the Faili issues by the majority Kurdish parties. Most importantly, it will be nearly impossible for refugees to successfully return if representation is not secured to handle the matter of others living in what were Faili homes and threatening them with force, along with some Faili still not having their citizenship restored, and thus unable to access basic civil programs.

Recurrent statements such as these which diminish the importance of the Faili in Baghdad reflect a larger issue in the study and reporting of minority groups within Iraq: namely, that their very existence is frequently denied. Yet the many families who continue to attend court hearings on a daily basis and become caught up in a rotating wheel of never-ending paperwork give lie to this gross misrepresentation. Hassan and his family plan to relocate to Baghdad if granted their settlement. As the family had been prominent in the Baghdad business community, Hassan and his siblings possess meticulous records of bank accounts, property deeds, and business records which clearly document the details of the governmental seizure and have been presented to the courts.16 As a result, after three years of demanding a host of additional documentation, several bribes, and sufficient stalling on behalf of the courts, an extremely low offer was made by the National Committee. It was immediately accepted by the family, but after several months there is still no sign of a payment; instead, they have been approached by lawyers, governmental officials, judges, and court employees, who have all demanded further bribes. The man and his family are now beginning to accept that their recourse will never be issued to them, and believe that the Iraqi government and officials are only seeking to extract further funds. This appears to be par for the course. Just when a case appears to be near completion, a silent hand is extended, beckoning for a pay-out from an already desolate family. Corruption is overtaking the government’s ability to perform duties promised by the Prime Minister.

The troubles facing the Faili are representative of greater issues within Baghdad and Iraq. Minority groups have been systematically silenced or coerced to align themselves with larger political entities under threat of force.17 The corruption and bureaucratic red-tape which currently rule in Baghdad echo the treatment endured by the Faili under the Ba’ath Regime, and do not bode well for the future effectiveness or legitimacy of the Iraqi Federal Government. As exemplified by the legal case of the Faili family, the court process has only served to defeat an already down-trodden group and cause them to feel a greater distance between themselves and the government. Hassan and his family still hold onto fond memories of “their Baghdad” prior to the rise of Saddam, a city where they lived in unison with other ethnic and religious groups, attending mixed schools, but hope for a future in Baghdad is rapidly dissipating. Hassan and Ali, his elder brother, capture the emotions that are tangled into the political situation: “We had a beautiful life in Baghdad before Saddam came into power. Yes, we were wealthy, so we had more than most, but that was all from my father’s hard work at his store. Now everything he built is gone. He died penniless after being exiled to Iran. Our mother broke her hip when they threw her from the truck. For thirty years, we had nothing, and we dreamed of the day Saddam would finally be overthrown and we could return to Baghdad. After the war [2003] and the new government’s promises, we were so excited to have even a small fraction of our stolen finances returned so we could afford to come home. But now we think it’s a different government with the same tricks… all stealing and lying.”18

Without popular legitimacy, a government has no hope of effectively managing its state and maintaining control. As the state continually slides into sectarian turmoil, it is in the government’s best interest to redress the grievances of those wronged by the Ba’athist regime, who would then return that gratitude through political action. Popular support may be the difference between total dissolution of the Iraqi government and a maintaining of order. In the case of the Faili, a return of seized funds would allow individuals who have historically contributed to and developed the economy of Baghdad to again be in the position to invest. Additionally, returned funds would allow those who have been living in refugee camps and unable to support themselves to become self sufficient. As the continual sectarian violence demonstrates, the Iraqi government needs to mend broken relationships with civilian populations. Allowing current corruption to further hinder the Faili community, who were treated so brutally by the past regime, can only serve to de-legitimise the government further.

1 Head of KDP’s Baghdad Branch: The Number of Kurds in Baghdad is Wrongly Inflated’ Rudaw, (2011) http://www.rudaw.net/english/kurds/3723.html return to main text
2 Swincer, G. and Appleton, G. ‘Faili Kurds and the Basij’ Blue Mountains Refugee Support Group. March 2013. http://bmrsg.org.au/faili-kurds-and-the-basij/ return to main text
3 ‘Country Guidance Note: Iraq’, Australian Government Department of Immigration and Citizenship. (2011), p. 15. return to main text
4 Country Guidance Note: Iran’, Australian Government Department of Immigration and Citizenship. (2013), p. 8. return to main text
5 Karim, Z. ‘International Recognition of the Kurdish Genocide – Concerning the Faili Kurds’ Universal Peace Federation-UK, Transcript of Address to House of Lords. 25 January 2013. return to main text
6 Country Guidance Note: Iran’, Australian Government Department of Immigration and Citizenship. (2013) p. 13. return to main text
7 Verney, M. ‘The Road Home: The Faili Kurds’, Refugees Magazine. Issue 134. (2004) p. 1. return to main text
8 Author’s private interview with several Faili families who wish to remain anonymous, out of fear of community and government backlash, as well as the potential impact on on-going retribution cases associated with speaking out. Conducted 2012-2013. return to main text
9 ‘More than 22,000 Faili Kurds Deported’, Kurd Press. 20 October 2011. return to main text
10 Author’s interview. Fictional names used in the interest of subject’s safety. 2013. return to main text
11 ‘Zamili: Iraq replaces Saudi Smuggler Who Killed 500 Faili’, Shafaq News, 24 July 2013. return to main text
12 Yahya, M. ‘Suicide Bomber Kills 21 North of Baghdad’, Associated Press, 29 October 2010, http://www.3news.co.nz/Suicide-bomber-kills-21-north-of-Baghdad/tabid/417/articleID/183865/Default.aspx#.UnLea_m-2So return to main text
13 Statement by Muhammed Amin Daloyee, head of the Baghdad branch of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, 2011. return to main text
14 Country Guidance Note: Iran’, Australian Government Department of Immigration and Citizenship. (2013) p. 10. return to main text
15 ‘Head of KDP’s Baghdad Branch: The Number of Kurds in Baghdad is Wrongly Inflated’ Rudaw, (2011) http://www.rudaw.net/english/kurds/3723.html return to main text
16 Author’s interview. Fictional names used in the interest of subject’s safety. 2013. return to main text
17 Human Rights Watch, ‘On Vulnerable Ground: Violence Against Minority Communities in Nineveh Province’s Disputed Territory’ (2009) p. 44. return to main text
18 Author’s interview. Subject anonymous in the interest of safety. 2013 return to main text

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Published by Asfar in London, UK - ISSN 2055-7957 (Online)