Sunday, April 1, 2007

IRBIL, Iraq — Tens of thousands of Iraqi Arabs have fled central Iraq for the relative peace of the Kurdish north, creating fresh tensions that are liable to be exacerbated by a plan to relocate Arabs from the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

About 1.9 million people have sought refuge inside Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, according to the latest U.N. figures, with many of them attracted by the relative peace of the Kurdish-run north. The Iraqi Red Crescent in Irbil has registered more than 5,000 families — or approximately 30,000 people — as refugees in the past two years.

The Irbil-based Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) says it has both the capacity and will to absorb Iraqis of all stripes, so long as they meet strict criteria: Iraqis seeking to live in the region must have a local resident who acts as a guarantor; on arrival they are required to go to the KRG residency officer to register with the government; and all are obligated to return regularly to report their living status.

KRG officials insist such measures are both fair and essential to preserve the peace that holds in the north, noting that no coalition troops have been killed or civilians kidnapped in the region since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

That peace does not extend, however, to Kirkuk, an ethnically mixed city just outside the Kurdish-administered region that the KRG would like to annex. On March 16, a series of bombings in the city killed at least 26 persons.

Under a Cabinet decision made public over the weekend, Arabs in Kirkuk will be offered the equivalent of $15,000 and a plot of land in their former communities if they go back voluntarily in the coming months.

Planning Minister Ali Baban said the plan was adopted over opposition from Sunni Arab members of the Shi’ite-led government, members of the Iraqi List led by former Shi’ite Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, and at least one Cabinet minister loyal to radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Sunni Justice Minister Hashim Al-Shebli resigned.

Saddam Hussein forcibly removed as many as 250,000 Kurds and other non-Arab minorities from Kirkuk during the 1970s and replaced them with pro-government Sunni Arabs from the south. But thousands have moved back, and Kurds are now thought to hold the majority.

The Iraqi Constitution mandates that a referendum on control of Kirkuk must be held by the end of this year, with the Kurds expected to win.

“We demanded that the question of Kirkuk be resolved through dialogue between the political blocs and not through the committee,” Mr. Baban told the Associated Press last week. “They say the repatriation is voluntary, but we have our doubts.”

As the central government encourages Arabs to move out of Kirkuk, the regional Kurdish government says it is reaching out to help many of the new Arab arrivals to find housing and jobs in Iraqi Kurdistan.

“We have our doors open to all Iraqis who desire peace, regardless of their background,” said Lt. Rebwar Mohammed, an officer in the regional police force in Irbil. “They are protected here.”

Abbas Khafaji, an Arab who moved north from Baghdad after his uncle was killed by Sunni gunmen, agreed.

A Kurdish acquaintance gave him a job at a downtown hotel when he arrived three months ago that pays enough for him and his family to live in safety. He calls himself “lucky” to have found work in the growing service sector and has no plans for leaving any time soon.

But some Kurds are troubled by the influx of displaced people, fearing that a surge in crime may follow.

“When things were miserable here under Saddam, we didn’t all run to Baghdad and beg for help. We took care of ourselves,” said Amed Shkak, a taxi driver from Sulaymaniyah, the region’s second-largest city.

“Why should we give up jobs for Arabs when we’ve worked so hard to create a future for the Kurdish people? Our suffering was as bad.”

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