BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraqi politicians are divided over a government plan to relocate thousands of Arab families from the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk, a move that's likely to hand greater control of the city to Iraq's Kurdish minority.
The plan, announced on Saturday, aims to redress one of the lingering scars left by Saddam Hussein's Baath Party—the forced removal of tens of thousands of Kurds from Kirkuk, where they were replaced by Arab families from Iraq's southern provinces.
But critics say it could hasten the partitioning of Iraq along religious and ethnic lines. Kirkuk is due to vote later this year on whether to join the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, and some Arabs say the government plan would cement the Kurdish voting bloc in one of Iraq's largest and most contested cities.
"It's very unfortunate that the government would take such a decision to remove people from places where they have farms, schools and homes," said Saleh al Mutlaq, a Sunni Muslim Arab who participated in drafting Iraq's new constitution, which calls for the Kirkuk referendum. "It shows we are not living in one country."
The plan—developed by a government committee appointed to study Kirkuk—would give Arabs who'd settled in the city under Baathist orders about $15,000 to return to the south, along with a piece of land in their home provinces.
Government officials said that the offer is voluntary, and that about 12,000 families had so far registered interest, although the start date was unclear.
Redressing decades of oppression of the Kurds by Saddam and the Baathists is a key element of the new Iraqi constitution, and Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, has formed a governing alliance with Kurds based in part on resolving the Kirkuk question.
"The injustices of the past should be ended," said Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd. "This is the essence of the new Iraq."
Kurds have come to see Kirkuk as the heart of autonomous Kurdistan, even though it's located outside the region's current boundaries. But critics say the focus on Kirkuk has much more to do with oil wealth. The Kirkuk oil field produces about half of Iraq's oil exports.
"Kirkuk's oil has enormous importance," said Ribwar Faeq Talabani, the Kurdish deputy speaker of Kirkuk's provincial council. At the same time, he said, if the Kirkuk question isn't resolved, "the war will start again between Kurds and Arabs."
Kirkuk was a mixed city of Kurds, Arabs and ethnic Turkmens in 1963, when the Baathists came to power. Over the next 40 years, under "Arabization" policies intended to shore up their support in strategic Kirkuk and the surrounding area, the Baathists forced tens of thousands of Kurds out of the region. Kurdish guerrillas, or peshmerga, launched a long war against Iraqi forces for control of Kirkuk.
In 2003, when the U.S. invasion toppled Saddam's regime, Kurdish families began streaming back into Kirkuk, only to find that their homes had been occupied or destroyed.
Kurds now are believed to make up slightly less than half of Kirkuk's roughly 1 million people. They dominate the government and security forces, which are often accused of harassment and intimidation against Arabs and Turkmen.
Some Arab leaders worry that the relocation won't in fact be voluntary, and will be carried out by Kurdish police.
"There are huge pressures upon Arabs to leave the city," said Sheik Abdullah Obedi, a Sunni Arab member of the Kirkuk provincial council. "The security forces conduct continuous raids. There are random detentions in Arab neighborhoods."
Sherkou Shakir, head of the Kirkuk police force, denied the allegations and said that his officers would help carry out the relocations "under the law."
Some Arabs in Kirkuk said they didn't feel pressure to move. Anmar Hussein Abdullah, a 37-year-old trader from a Sunni family that's lived in Kirkuk for generations, said he isn't considering the government relocation offer.
"We have never heard about pressures to leave," Abdullah said. "I am from the Arab families who are living in this city for centuries and centuries. We are not going to abandon our city."
(Special correspondents Hassan al-Jubouri in Tikrit and Yaseen Taha in Sulaimaniya contributed to this report.)
Inside Iraq is a blog written by Iraqi members of McClatchy Newspapers' Baghdad staff. You can find it at http://washingtonbureau.typepad.com/iraq
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.