Tackling one of the most complex and controversial issues facing the country, the government has endorsed plans to relocate thousands of Arabs who were moved to oil-rich Kirkuk as part of Saddam Hussein's Arabization campaign to displace ethnic Kurds, a Cabinet minister said on Saturday.
Opposition politicians blasted the Kirkuk plan and Turkey already had warned that the city and its sizable Turkish minority must never become part of the Kurdish autonomous zone in northern Iraq, a likely next step.
Iraq's constitution sets an end-of-the year deadline for a referendum on Kirkuk's status. Since Saddam's fall four years ago, thousands of Kurds who once lived in the city have resettled there. It is now believed Kurds are a majority of the population and that a referendum on attaching Kirkuk to the Kurdish autonomous zone would pass by a wide margin.
Kirkuk, an ancient city that once was part of the Ottoman Empire, has a large minority of ethnic Turks as well as Christians, Shiite and Sunni Arabs, Armenians and Assyrians. The city is just south of the Kurdish autonomous zone stretching across three provinces of northeastern Iraq.
There were fears that scheduling a referendum that was likely to put Kirkuk, 180 miles north of Baghdad, under Kurdish control could open a new front in the violence that has ravaged Iraq since shortly after the U.S.-led invasion four years ago. On March 19, several bombs struck targets in Kirkuk and killed at least 26 people.
Meanwhile, a series of bombings killed at least nine people and wounded dozens in Iraq, police said. The attacks raised to at least 517 the number of people killed in the past seven days as suicide bombers and militiamen fought back ferociously despite a U.S.-Iraqi security sweep that is in its seventh week.
In Other Developments:
A parked car exploded near a hospital in Baghdad's main Shiite district on Saturday. The blast in Sadr City occurred about 10:30 a.m. and was targeting street vendors and pedestrians just outside the entrance to the al-Sadr General Hospital. Police said at least five people were killed and 15 wounded.
Another parked car bomb struck a gas station about 9:30 a.m. in the Shiite city of Hillah, killing at least two people and wounding 22, provincial police said. The city, 60 miles south of Baghdad, has been the site of some of the deadliest blasts since the war started four years ago, including a double suicide bombing against a crowd of Shiite pilgrims that killed 120 people on March 6.
In northern Iraq, a car exploded about 7 a.m. after the driver parked it near Iraqis looking for work in the center of Tuz Khormato, 130 miles north of Baghdad. The driver and two workers were killed and 11 others wounded in the attack, police Col. Abbas Mohammed Amin said. He said the driver intended to wait until more workers had gathered before detonating the explosives but they went off prematurely, preventing a higher casualty toll.
The U.S. military denied that it was involved in airstrikes over Sadr City on Friday after local officials said 20 suspected militants were killed and 14 others wounded, along with seven civilians, in an airstrike targeting a Shiite militant base in eastern Baghdad.
President Bush, the American military and U.S. diplomats in Iraq have expressed cautious optimism about the crackdown on violence that began Feb. 14 in Baghdad, Anbar province and regions surrounding the capital, but the ease with which suspected al Qaeda suicide bombers have continued striking Shiite targets has cast a shadow over the effort. Only about a third of the additional 30,000 soldiers and Marines that Bush pledged for the security drive are in the country, with the full deployment not expected until June.
Justice Minister Hashim al-Shebli said the Cabinet agreed on Thursday to a study group's recommendation that Arabs who had moved to Kirkuk from other parts of Iraq after July 14, 1968, should be returned to their original towns and paid for their trouble.
Al-Shebli, who had overseen the committee on Kirkuk's status, said relocation would be voluntary. Those who choose to leave will be paid 20 million Iraqi dinars (about $15,000) and given land in their former hometowns.
"There will be no coercion and the decision will not be implemented by force," al-Shebli told The Associated Press.
In discussing the Kirkuk issue, al-Shebli, a Sunni Arab, also confirmed he had offered his resignation on the same day that the Cabinet signed off on the plan. He cited differences with the government and his own political group, the secular Iraqi List, which joined Sunni Arab lawmakers Saturday in opposing the Kirkuk decision.
He said he would continue in office until the Cabinet approved his resignation.