Sunday, April 1, 2007

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s government has endorsed plans to relocate thousands of Arabs from Kirkuk in an effort to undo one of Saddam Hussein’s most hated policies — forcing Kurds out of Kirkuk and replacing them with Arabs from the south.

The contentious decision was confirmed yesterday by Iraqi Justice Minister Hashim al-Shebli, a Sunni.

Opposition politicians said they feared it would harden the violent divisions among Iraq’s fractious ethnic and religious groups and possibly lead to an Iraq divided among Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shi’ite Arabs.

At least 36 persons were killed in a series of bombings and attacks around the country yesterday, including nine construction workers who died when gunmen opened fire on their bus south of Kirkuk. The deaths capped a week in which more than 500 people were killed in sectarian violence.

Kirkuk, an ancient city that once was part of the Ottoman Empire, has a large minority of ethnic Turks as well as Christians, Shi’ite and Sunni Arabs, Armenians and Assyrians. The city is just south of the Kurdish autonomous zone stretching across three provinces of northeastern Iraq.

The Iraqi 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 easily.

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 1968 should be returned to their original towns and paid compensation.

Mr. al-Shebli, who had overseen the committee on Kirkuk’s status, said relocation would be voluntary. Those who choose to leave will be paid 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.

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 Shi’ite south.

After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Kurds and other non-Arabs streamed back, only to find their homes were either sold or given to Arabs. Some of the returning Kurds found nowhere to live except in parks and abandoned government buildings. Others drove Arabs from the city, despite pleas from Sunni and Shi’ite leaders for them to stay.

Adil Abdul-Hussein Alami, a 62-year-old Shi’ite who moved to Kirkuk 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 Shi’ite 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.

Mr. al-Shebli, a Sunni Arab, confirmed he had offered his resignation on the same day that the Cabinet approved the plan. He cited differences with the government and his own political group, the secular Iraqi List, which joined Sunni Arab lawmakers yesterday 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 Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi’ite. The group holds 25 seats in the 275-seat parliament.

Ali al-Dabbagh, spokesman for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said Mr. al-Shebli quit before he could be fired in a coming government reshuffle. Neither Mr. al-Dabbagh nor Mr. al-Shebli would say if the minister had resigned over the Kirkuk issue.

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