Arabs in Kirkuk dismayed at relocation plan
By Mustafa Mohammed and Sherko Raouf Sun Apr 1, 10:30 AM ET
Arabs forced to move to Kirkuk decades ago by Saddam Hussein expressed dismay on Sunday at the Iraqi government's plan to encourage them to leave the oil-rich northern city and return to their original homes.
Iraq is expected to settle the final status of the ethnically-mixed city in a local referendum by the end of the year. Some officials and analysts have warned it might spark bloodshed.
Kurds want to incorporate Kirkuk into their largely autonomous Kurdistan region, which lies just to the north.
Abu Jabar, a 70-year-old Arab, said he moved to Kirkuk in 1975 from the southern city of Nassiriya with his wife and two children. His extended family now numbers 18.
"Some of my sons have married, had children and bought houses here and do not know anything about their city of origin. They have never been there," Abu Jabar said.
The cabinet last week agreed to give Arab families 20 million dinars ($15,000) each and a piece of land if they voluntarily returned to their original towns. Government sources told Reuters about the decision on Saturday.
Under Saddam, Kirkuk was subject to an "Arabization" policy that drove many Kurds from their homes and brought in Arabs, mostly Shi'ite Muslims from the south.
Iraq's constitution says that in the build-up to the city-wide referendum, the government should reverse Saddam's policy. A big influx of Kurds would sharply increase the odds the vote would result in Kirkuk becoming part of Kurdistan.
The compensation plan for Kirkuk has angered some Shi'ite and Sunni Arab parliamentarians in Baghdad.
Nassar al-Rubaie, head of the parliamentary bloc of radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, said a campaign to collect signatures would be launched to delay the referendum.
"Kirkuk is an Iraqi city. This issue needs to be postponed so we can solve the problem," he told a news conference.
Sharif Najim, a 35-year-old Kurdish farmer, said the relocation of Arabs would stabilize the city.
"They are the reason for the troubles because they took the money and the lands of the Kurds and the Turkmen," he said, referring to the city's Turkish-speaking ethnic group.
Kirkuk, which sits atop one of the world's richest oil fields, could become a flashpoint for wider conflict.
Neighboring Turkey has hinted it might take military action to protect its own national interests.
Ankara fears Iraq's Kurds plan to seize control of Kirkuk as a prelude to declaring full independence from Baghdad, a move that could reignite separatist unrest among Kurds in southeast Turkey. Kurdish officials have repeatedly said they have no plans to separate from Iraq.
Arab Lawyer Harith Hussein, 45, said he moved to Kirkuk from the Shi'ite city of Hilla, south of Baghdad, in 1983.
"The government should provide security first and stop the violence that harvests hundreds daily before agreeing to such decisions that will ignite more violence," he said.
Civil servant Mohammed Khalaf, 29, said his family moved to Kirkuk in 1981 from the town of Hawija. He said he was prepared to return if the process was voluntary.
"If they gave me 20 million dinars, land and if I can move my job to my original city, I will go back," he said.
The United Nations has warned of a "looming crisis" in Kirkuk, where it said ethnic Turkmen and Arabs were being intimidated by Kurdish forces. Since the U.S. invasion of 2003, many Kurds have returned.