BAGHDAD – The Iraqi government has endorsed a decision to relocate and compensate thousands of Arabs who moved to the northern city of Kirkuk as part of Saddam Hussein's campaign to push out the Kurds, the justice minister said Saturday. The decision was a major step toward solidifying the status of the disputed oil-rich city.
A series of bombings and attacks, meanwhile, killed at least 17 people around the country, including nine construction workers who died when gunmen opened fire on their bus. The violence capped a week in which more than 500 people have died in sectarian violence.
Justice Minister Hashim al-Shebli said the Cabinet agreed on Thursday to a committee's February recommendation that Arabs who moved to Kirkuk from other parts of Iraq after July 1968 would be returned to their original towns and given monetary compensation in exchange for the voluntary moves.
Al-Shebli, a Sunni Arab, also confirmed that he offered his resignation on Thursday, citing differences with the government and his own political group, the secular Iraqi List, which joined Sunni Arab lawmakers in opposing the Kirkuk decision. He said he would remain in office until the Cabinet approved his resignation.
"I have differences with the government on one side and with my parliamentary bloc on another," al-Shebli said, without elaborating.
The Iraqi List, which is led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, holds 25 seats in the 275-seat parliament.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, could not be reached for comment. Government adviser Sami al-Askari said he had no information about the resignation.
Kurds are seeking to incorporate Kirkuk, located about 180 miles north of Baghdad, into their autonomous region, but the move is opposed by Arabs and Turkmen.
Tens of thousands of Kurds and non-Arabs fled Kirkuk in the 1980s and 1990s when Saddam's government implemented its "Arabization" policy in which pro-government Arabs were moved into the region from the mainly Shiite impoverished south.
After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Kirkuk was widely seen as a tinderbox as Kurds and other non-Arabs streamed back with their homes, keys in hand, only to find they had either been sold or given to Arabs. At the same time, many Arabs were forced to leave the city, despite Sunni and Shiite Arab leaders pleading with them not to.
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 now.
"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.
The justice minister, who heads the committee overseeing talks on Kirkuk's status, said the relocations would be voluntary and those who move will be paid about $15,000 and given land in their hometowns.
"There will be no coercion and the decision will not be implemented by force," al-Shebli told The Associated Press.
Iraq's constitution calls for a separate referendum on Kirkuk's future by the end of this year, but the opponents want to put off the vote — worried about Kurdish dominance and more violence if the referendum were held and the Kurds win. The relocation of Arab residents from Kirkuk would help the Kurds ensure a majority in favor of incorporating the city.
Al-Shebli said authorities in Kirkuk would begin distributing forms soon to Arab families to determine who had been part of Saddam's Arabization campaign.
Planning Minister Ali Baban said the Cabinet decision in favor of relocation was adopted over the opposition of Sunni Arab members of the Shiite-led government, members of the Iraqi List and at least one Cabinet minister loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
"We demanded that the question of Kirkuk be resolved through dialogue between the political blocs and not through the committee," he told the AP earlier this week. "They say the repatriation is voluntary, but we have our doubts."
He said the Sunni opposition was based on the fact that the constitution is under review, with the clause relevant to Kirkuk likely to be debated in that review, and no action should be taken while the issue remains disputed.
The Shiites and Kurds had agreed to consider amendments when the constitution was put to a referendum in 2005 in hopes of winning support from Sunni politicians. The Sunnis now heatedly complain that the constitutional review has never taken place, even though it was to have occurred within four months of being adopted.
Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni lawmaker with the Iraqi List, also denounced the decision, saying it fails to address many key issues, including how to deal with property claims.
In violence Saturday, a parked car exploded near a hospital in Baghdad's main Shiite district of Sadr City, targeting street vendors and pedestrians. Police said at least five people were killed and 15 wounded.
Gunmen also opened fire on a minibus carrying construction workers home from work at an Iraqi army camp south of Kirkuk, 180 miles north of Baghdad, killing nine of them and wounding one, police said.
Those attacks and others Saturday raised to at least 526 the number of people killed in the past seven days as suicide bombers and militiamen fought back ferociously despite a U.S.-Iraqi security sweep that is in its seventh week.
Separately, the U.S. military denied that it was involved in airstrikes over Sadr City on Friday after local officials said 20 suspected militants were killed and 14 others wounded, along with seven civilians, in an airstrike targeting a Shiite militant base in eastern Baghdad.
In Washington, U.S. Army Brig. Gen. John Bednarek said Friday coalition forces were nearby during a spree of revenge killings in Tal Afar by off-duty Iraqi police after a bombing that killed 80 people earlier this week.
But, he said that while members of coalition military and police training teams were in the area, "we were not aware of the reprisal killings until the following day."