BAGHDAD – Iraq’s government has endorsed plans to relocate thousands of Arabs who were moved to Kirkuk as part of Saddam Hussein’s campaign to force ethnic Kurds out of the oil-rich city, in an effort to undo one of the former dictator’s most enduring and hated policies.
The Interior Ministry, meanwhile, raised the death toll in Tuesday’s suicide truck bombing of a Shiite market in Tal Afar to 152, which would make it the deadliest single strike since the war started four years ago.
A spokesman for the Shiite-dominated ministry, Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, said the toll nearly doubled after more bodies were pulled from the rubble in the northwestern city.
The U.S. military and the mayor of Tal Afar kept the death toll at 83. But they acknowledged the figure could rise.
The contentious decision on Kirkuk was confirmed Saturday by Iraq’s Sunni justice minister as he told the Associated Press he was resigning. Almost immediately, 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 Shiites.
The plan was certain to anger neighboring Turkey, which fears a northward migration of Iraqi Kurds – and an exodus of Sunni Arabs – will inflame its own restive Kurdish minority.
Around Iraq on Saturday, at least 38 people were killed or found dead in series of bombings and attacks, including nine construction workers who died when gunmen opened fire on their bus south of Kirkuk. The violence capped a week in which more than 500 Iraqis were killed in sectarian violence.
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 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.
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 said.
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, 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 Shiite leaders for them to stay.
Adil Abdul-Hussein Alami, a 62-year-old Shiite 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 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.
There were fears that 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. On March 19, several bombs struck targets in Kirkuk and killed at least 26 people.