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.
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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.
The Iraqi List is led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite. The group holds 25 seats in the 275-seat parliament.
Ali al-Dabbagh, spokesman for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said al-Shebli quit before he could be fired in a coming government reshuffle. Neither al-Dabbagh nor al-Shebli would say if the minister had resigned over the Kirkuk issue.
In late February Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Iraqi Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi that Baghdad should delay the Kirkuk referendum because the Kirkuk was not secure.
Turkey fears Iraq's Kurds want Kirkuk's oil revenues to fund an eventual bid for independence that could encourage separatist Kurdish guerrillas in Turkey, who have been fighting for autonomy since 1984. That conflict has claimed the lives of 37,000 people.
Al-Shebli said local authorities in Kirkuk, would begin distributing forms soon to Arab families to determine who would participate in the relocation program. He said he could not predict how long the process would take.
Planning Minister Ali Baban said the Cabinet decision in favor of the relocation recommendations was adopted over the opposition of Sunni Arab members of the Shiite-led government, members of the Iraqi List and at least one Cabinet minister loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
"We demanded that the question of Kirkuk be resolved through dialogue between the political blocs and not through the committee," he told the AP earlier this week. "They say the repatriation is voluntary, but we have our doubts."
He said the Sunni opposition was based on the fact that the constitution is under review, with the clause relevant to Kirkuk likely to be debated in that review, and no action should be taken while the issue remains disputed.
The Shiites and Kurds had agreed to consider amendments when the constitution was put to a referendum in 2005 in hopes of winning support from Sunni politicians. The Sunnis now heatedly complain that the constitutional review has never taken place, even though it was to have occurred within four months of being adopted.
"We will continue to oppose the recommendations and try to persuade other parties to see our point of view," Baban said. "We feel that this poses a danger to the unity of Iraq and could have consequences."
Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni lawmaker with the Iraqi List, also denounced the decision, saying it fails to address many key issues, including how to deal with property claims.
"There are more than 13,000 unsolved cases before the commission in charge of this point and it just solved no more than 250 of them," he said of the property claims. "The other thing is the huge demographic change in Kirkuk as more than 650,000 Kurds have been brought in illegally over the past four years. We contest these resolutions and we will raise to the parliament to be discussed."
Tens of thousands of Kurds and non-Arabs fled Kirkuk in the 1980s and 1990s when Saddam's government implemented its "Arabization" policy. Kurds and non-Arabs were replaced with pro-government Arabs from the mainly Shiite impoverished south.
After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Kirkuk was widely seen as a tinderbox as Kurds and other non-Arabs streamed back with their house, keys in hand, only to find their homes were either sold or given to Arabs.
The returning Kurds became displaced in their own hometown as they found nowhere to live except in parks and abandoned government buildings. At the same time, many Arabs were forced to leave the city, despite Sunni and Shiite Arab leaders pleading with them not to.
Adil Abdul-Hussein Alami, a 62-year-old Shiite who moved to the city 23 years ago in return for $1,000 and a free piece of land, said he would find it hard to leave.
"Kirkuk is an Iraqi city and I'm Iraqi," said the father of nine. "We came here as one family and now we are four. Our blood is mixed with Kurds and Turkmen."
But Ahmed Salih Zowbaa, a 52-year old Shiite father of six who moved to the city from Kufa in 1987, agreed with the government's decision. "We gave our votes to this government and constitution and as long as the government will compensate us, then there is no injustice at all," he said.