Spring 2010 | ArteZine

Spatial Design and Social Control: Collective Towns in Iraqi Kurdistan

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Photography by Ehsan Maleki


During the 1970s and the 1980s the Ba‘athist [alternative spelling is Ba‘thist] regime in Iraq displaced massively villagers in the northern region of Kurdistan from mountainous areas down to the valleys. The Iraqi government designed mujamma‘a or Collective Towns where these displaced populations were relocated. The planning of these Collective Towns initially responded to a logic of rationalisation and cost-effectiveness, but was successively turned into one of the tools used by the Saddam Hussein regime’s policy regarding the Kurdish populations of Iraq.

Researchers Francesca Recchia and Anna Wachtmeister engaged in a collaborative investigation of the spatial, economic and social implications of this massive relocation project. The forced displacement and urbanisation of the population is crucial to the understanding of contemporary Kurdish history. It is also a topical example of the strength and potential of urban design in population management. What follows is a conversation conducted with urban researcher Azad Shekhani, it begins with a historical reconstruction of Collective Towns from their original socialist ideal in the 1970s to their use as a territorial device of social, political and ethnic control.


Azad Shekhani: The origin of Collective Towns in Iraq goes back to the 1970s, when the country promoted agricultural reforms, with the belief that modernization of villages would instigate progress in agriculture. There was a prevailing call amongst Arab socialist states to develop a Soviet model of socialist villages in Third World countries. The idea behind the creation of Collective Towns was that gathering different villages and merging them in a big town would improve infrastructure. Water, electricity and sewage would be provided only to a single town instead of creating a system that would reach all the villages spread around the mountains. It was a cost-effective measure. The first Collective Town was built in 1974 in Bazian near Suleymaniya with the aim of improving the living conditions of the villagers. This strategy was not only applied in Kurdistan but all over Iraq. These were the so-called ‘first generation’ Collective Towns. They were very small in size, counted between five hundred and a thousand people, and the agricultural land was close to the towns so people could cultivate it while benefiting from the modernized urban setting.  The sources of water were very close and houses were built with stone, bricks and cement instead of mud or wood as was the habit in the villages.

The 1980s saw the development of the ‘second generation’ Collective Towns. The reason was no longer to modernize rural life, the aim then was to gather all the inhabitants of the villages into one big town so that the Kurdish population could be controlled, and the logistical support to the Peshmergas (the Kurdish guerrillas) whom, at that time, were fighting in the mountains would end. The second-generation Collective Towns are bigger in size: some, like Chamchamal or Qalar counted almost sixty thousand. They were planned very far from farming land, the houses were made of concrete, built in a very geometric way, at odds with the local physical and cultural environment. People were prevented from finding work. Their villages had been destroyed and thus people ended up becoming dependent on government assistance. Many were unemployed, in this context, the Iraqi government introduced the system of monthly food rations. The second generation of Collective Towns during the 1980s counts the establishment of more than thirty-five new centres in the three governorates of Kurdistan. This determined a peculiar pattern of urbanisation concentrated not towards the cities but towards the Collective Towns.

Francesca Recchia: Behind both generations of Collective Towns there is a strong ideological perspective. The first phase is inspired from a socialist ideal, while the second is clearly a response to an ethnicisation of the political relations between the Iraqi central government and the Kurds. How did the ideological shift between a cost effective measure of land and infrastructure management and a highly racialized tool of social control happen?

AS: Saddam Hussein used a model of development for the rural sector that was common to other countries in the 1970s. It is during this time that he nationalized oil even attempted to generate five years plans. The situation changed radically after the war with Iran during the 1980s, when both the Kurdish guerrilla and the pressure from Iran grew stronger. The political situation encouraged Saddam Hussein to change housing and rural policies and to increase control over the population. He adopted the same instruments of population displacement and Collective Towns to serve different purposes this time. Collective Towns were geographically easier to control as they were located along the highways. Internal control was guaranteed by the heads of the tribes and by the design of large streets that could be patrolled by the army.

FR: What were the control devices put in place by the Iraqi regime in the Collective Towns?

AS: Freedom of movement was imposed on everyone at that time, but things were more complicated for the Collective Towns dwellers residents because they were subject to stricter controls and the numerous checkpoints. The preclusion of access to job opportunities was another tool. Spatial and housing design contributed to enforce control –housing and town planning was centralised, it was designed in Baghdad and applied in equal measure all over Kurdistan from Dohuk to Suleymaniya. People couldn’t work and didn’t have enough space to take care of their livestock. Although some of the communal big courtyards were sometimes cultivated or used for that. Houses were built with the same design: two rooms, one kitchen, one bathroom. It was very geometrical and totally different from what people were used to in the villages. The positive thing was that the government provided Collective Towns with electricity and water points and streets were larger than in villages. These elements became the base for future urban development, Collective Towns can in fact be considered the core of contemporary urbanisation in Kurdistan. At the beginning of the 1991 Kurdish uprising, some people tried to go back to their original villages, dismantling the Collective Towns to use stones, windows and doors and bring them back with them. Not many eventually relocated as villages were isolated, had no water, electricity or services and most family remained in the Collective Towns even if they still owned land in remote villages.

FR: At the establishment of Collective Towns there is a massive displacement of people from the mountains downhill. Kurdish villages are mainly organised around a tribal system, in the process of dislocation people were not kept together according to their affiliations. This became a powerful tool to implement social control, in a mixed community people wouldn’t interact, socialise or weave networks of solidarity as confidently as when they were together with the rest of the tribe.

AS: It was indeed a powerful tool because the relations between different tribes was not always harmonious, village dwellers were not used to living back to back with people who had a different tribal background.

Anna Wachtmeister: Did the Iraqi regime tear villages apart or did they move the whole village to one Collective Town?

AS: The people from a village were kept together, but then merged in the Collective Town with people from another distant village with a different tribal system, way of life, and culture. The level of social conflict was very high in the Collective Towns, particularly in the larger ones, because tribes, that had been kept at a distance from one another and maybe historically had feuds, were now living in the same place. The mixing generated tensions, violence and criminality.

FR: How was the operation of massive displacement conducted? I wonder whether there were any compensations, if people were forced to move or were given a choice.

AS: In the 1970s people were mostly encouraged rather not forced –except for the Collective Towns built when Iraq decided to evacuate villages close to the border with Iran. The government was encouraging people to have a more modernised life, new houses, water, and sanitation. It was practically a more manageable solution, people were not against it, because the agricultural land was very close to the Collective Towns.

In the 1980s, the displacement was not voluntary; it happened by force and was compulsory. People were moved to Collective Towns where the land had been previously divided. Engineers supervised construction and the local population was forced to build structures by themselves.

FR: It was basically a mass deportation and people were forced to work in the construction of the city, but they were allocated a piece of land and given the material to build a house.

AS: The government gave people grants or loans to buy bricks and construction material, but there was no compensation for the displacement. The land on which the Collective Towns were developed was often private and expropriated by the Iraqi government for being the most appropriate locations for strategic control.

FR: Which were the parameters that made a site appropriate for setting up a Collective Town?

AS: The plot of land had to be close to a road, close to a military base and as close to the city as possible. The majority of Collective Towns are laid out on the main road between Suleymaniya, Erbil and Dohuk. You can hardly find a Collective Town located in a remote area.

AW: Did people keep their houses in the villages or were the villages left to ruin? And what about the second generation of Collective Towns, did the Iraqi regime destroy the villages?

AS: For the first generation of Collective Towns, some of the original villages were kept from total abandon because of summer trips, people spent three months of the summer in their native village and spend the rest of the year in the Collective Town. The situation was dramatically different in the case of the second generation, during the 1980s more than four thousand villages were destroyed.

FR: From a political point of view one of the main purposes of Collective Towns was to cut the logistical and material support to the Peshmerga in the mountains. Was Saddam’s policy successful at all?

AS: It was successful because the guerrilla relied on support from the villages, without which they couldn’t carry out their struggle. The political manoeuvre was strategically and logistically well planned by Saddam, he used Collective Towns, prisons in the south and killing.

FR: This strategic dimension of planning is quite fascinating. There must have been a think tank that drew the plans and thought about how people could be displaced, Collective Towns planned, houses designed…  Housing is a relevant example in this sense because it aims at breaking down the cultural background of people. In Khaznazan you see terraced houses on three storeys, which is all the opposite of what you can see in the villages. Someone who lives on the third floor would never be able to cultivate anything let alone keeping their livestock.  This is an interesting element to understand how design has been used as a tool to cut cultural ties and impose a new form of acculturation to a context and lifestyle that was not chosen but imposed.

AS: The design and planning of Collective Towns was completely rational: houses were built in the style of a town house, very different from traditions in the villages. The village houses were of two kinds. Those with two storeys for instance, used the ground floor for the livestock, and the first floor had rooms (two) and a small terrace that connected them. The livestock would be on the ground floor and people had a different access to the first floor. The one-storey houses had the sleeping and meeting quarters on one side of the courtyard, guests were in another corner and animals in third corner. Usually one portion of the courtyard was used as a work space, for processing agricultural or dairy products. Therefore, people were totally at odds with the structure of the houses of the Collective Towns, although there were some attempts to use courtyards for the same purposes.

AW: Services in the Collective Towns were all provided for free, the government gave people water, food, electricity; were there also some kind of schools?

AS: There were primary and secondary schools, there was always a mosque and some Collective Towns had also a health center.

AW: Collective Towns were basically meant to create total dependency to the Iraqi government. Was there a plan for the population or were they only interested in keeping them alive?

AS: The idea was to keep people alive there as in a big prison, under control and providing them with food.

FR: Are there estimates for the economic cost of such an operation?

AS: It was very costly for Iraq. Besides the actual operation, the annihilation of the villages completely destroyed agriculture. Iraq used to export a lot of products until the beginning of the 1980s when it became a country that imported everything.

AW: Like a proper oil state…

AS: Yes, before that, it had a very diverse economy. The legacy of that problematic policy remains until today, local farmers have been transformed into consumers. After 1996, the UN “Oil for Food” program had a further negative impact on Iraqi agriculture, when the country was forced to import the majority of products.

FR: The costs of the construction and the whole operation of Collective Towns must have been enormous. Since they were built with public money I wonder which political rhetoric was used to justify the huge costs of displacing people and constructing new cities.

AS: The whole project of the Collective Towns was a huge loss of money for the state, but during the 1980s only the Ba‘ath party was in power in Iraq, there was no opposition. Nobody was able to say anything, the regime would arrest or kill them. Another thing to keep in mind is that many people of the central and southern regions of Iraq were not aware of what was happening in the north. They were not aware of the destruction of villages. Only people in Kurdistan knew. There were no open discussion on the policies of the regime –in a totalitarian situation you can only accept.