By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 1, 2007
BAGHDAD, March 31 -- The Iraqi government will soon begin relocating Arabs who were moved to Kirkuk under an edict by Saddam Hussein to force Kurds out of the disputed northern city, officials said Saturday.
The controversial step for the oil-rich city could help determine whether it becomes part of an autonomous Kurdish region, but critics warned that it would stoke sectarian tensions.
Iraq's cabinet on Thursday endorsed a committee's recent recommendation to compensate eligible Arabs who voluntarily leave the city, said Sadiq al-Rikabi, a political adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Those who choose to move will receive about $15,000 and a plot of land in their home town. Officials will soon accept applications to determine eligibility, he said.
"This can, in a humanitarian framework, fix the mistakes of the previous regime," said Razgar Ali, a Kurd and the leader of Kirkuk's city council.
The future of one of Iraq's largest cities and its vast oil reserves has long been a divisive issue across the country. Kurds hope to make Kirkuk -- whose population includes Arabs, Kurds and ethnic Turkmens -- part of an autonomous Kurdish region, which Iraqi Arabs fear would lead to a partitioning of the nation.
The government's decision on relocation, critics said, could enable Kurds to cement their voting power ahead of a citywide referendum on whether to join an autonomous Kurdish region.
Under Hussein, tens of thousands of Kurds were forcibly removed from Kirkuk and replaced by Arabs -- mostly Shiites from southern Iraq -- as the president sought to solidify his power in the city.
After Hussein was ousted in 2003, thousands of Kurds flooded back to the city but found their homes occupied by Arabs. The influx has strengthened Kurdish influence in the city and aggravated ethnic tensions.
Iraq's constitution calls for a referendum on the future of Kirkuk by the end of this year, but only if the Iraqi government has moved on relocating Arab settlers and repatriating former Kurdish residents. The government's endorsement of the relocation plan marks the beginning of that process.
The plan was approved last month by a committee overseeing Kirkuk's status, prompting hundreds of the city's Arab residents to protest in the streets. The committee was headed by Justice Minister Hashim al-Shebli, who resigned from his position Thursday, government sources said. Shebli, a Sunni Arab, told the Associated Press that he was having "differences" with the government and his political bloc, the secular Iraqi National List.
In recent weeks, former prime minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who leads the Iraqi National List, has met with Sunni Arab and Kurdish leaders in an attempt to create a new parliamentary coalition that could challenge the ruling Shiite religious alliance. So far, Allawi, whose group holds 25 seats in the 275-seat parliament, has found little support to pose a direct challenge to Maliki.
Abdul Rahman Munshed al-Asi, leader of the Arab advisory council of Kirkuk, said Saturday that many Arabs fear that the repatriation would be voluntary in name but carried out with force by Kirkuk's Kurdish-led security forces.
Hossam Abdullah, leader of the Patriotic Turkmen Movement in Kirkuk, stated his opposition more bluntly: "All the Turkmens will become suicide bombers to defend the Turkmen identity of Kirkuk," he said.
Abdul Hossein Ali al-Lami, a Shiite Arab who moved to Kirkuk from the southern port city of Basra in 1981 under Hussein's "Arabization" program, said he shared the fear that Arabs would be forced to leave. He has put down roots in Kirkuk, he said, and his family now includes Kurds and Turkmens. His son, a policeman, was killed in the line of duty in the city, he said.
"What kind of democracy has the right to kick me out of the land that my son sacrificed himself for?" he said. "What kind of democracy will make me look to the Kurds with hate while we are the sons of one people and one nation?"
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said the government was simply following a constitution approved by the people and insisted that relocations would be voluntary. Already, he said, "thousands have agreed to go back to their original homeplaces and to be compensated by the government to start their new lives."
Meanwhile, the U.S. military and Iraqi officials offered conflicting final death tolls from bloodshed this week in the northern city of Tall Afar, where twin truck bombings in a Shiite neighborhood sparked reprisal killings of the Sunni minority near the site.
An Interior Ministry spokesman, Brig. Abdul Kareem Khalaf, said at a news conference that 152 people were killed in the initial blasts and that 347 people were wounded, which would make it the single deadliest bombing in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. But a U.S. military commander in Tall Afar said that 82 people were killed and 191 wounded.
It was unclear whether the U.S. figure included the retaliation killings.
Also Saturday, the U.S. military announced that an American soldier died Friday of causes unrelated to battle.
A car bomb exploded Saturday morning in front of a hospital in the vast Baghdad district of Sadr City, killing five people, the U.S. military said.
Throughout the rest of the country Saturday, bombings killed 10 people and police found 18 unidentified bodies, the Interior Ministry reported.
Correspondent Joshua Partlow, special correspondent Naseer Nouri and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.