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Iraq: Committee Decision Increases Tensions In Kirkuk

Violence has increased in Kirkuk in recent weeks (epa) February 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The status of Kirkuk remains one of the most controversial and explosive issues in Iraq.

On February 7, approximately 500 Arabs demonstrated in Kirkuk to protest the decision by a government committee to relocate thousands of Arabs living in the province. The decision was the first major salvo in the contentious issue of applying Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, which concerns the future of the oil-rich province.

Article 140 calls for a three-step process to determine the political future of the province, through normalization, a census, and finally a referendum, which is scheduled to be carried out by the end of 2007. The process aims to reverse the Arabization policies of the former regime, when thousands of Kurds and non-Arabs were driven from Kirkuk or were relocated and replaced with Arabs from the impoverished south.

Since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, there has been a dramatic demographic shift. Iraqi and U.S. officials have said that up to 350,000 Kurds have returned to Kirkuk, with many trying to reclaim land and homes. At the same time, there have been reports that thousands of Arabs and ethnic Turkish Turkomans have fled because of violence and intimidation.

While all sides are preparing for the upcoming referendum, the recent move by the Iraqi Higher Committee for the Normalization of Kirkuk has increased tensions among Kirkuk's multiethnic population that could potentially plunge the region into turmoil

Arabs To Be Relocated

On February 4, the committee made a controversial decision calling for the relocation of thousands of Arabs who have been living in Kirkuk. The committee ruled that Arabs who had come to reside in Kirkuk as a result of the former regime's Arabization policies would be returned to their places of origin in central and southern Iraq and be given appropriate financial compensation, including a plot of land and approximately $15,000, "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on February 5. In essence, the thousands of Arabs to be relocated would lose their right to vote in the referendum.

Kirkuk's Turkomans fear the city will be absorbed by the semi-autonomous Kurdish region (epa file photo)

The head of the committee, Iraqi Justice Minister Hashim al-Shibli, said the decision was not final and the resolution needed to be approved by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Kurdish lawmakers insisted that the decision is legally sound and there would be no action taken against the Arabs to force them to leave.

However, Kurdish National Assembly deputy speaker Kamal Kirkuki told "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" on February 7 that "the execution of the resolution is binding and no one is capable of standing in the way of its implementation."

Some Kurdish officials have suggested that even those who were not relocated would not be able to vote. Kurdish regional parliament speaker Adnan Mufti said that even Arabs born in Kirkuk to parents who came from the south would not have the right to vote, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on February 1. "I don't believe they have the right to vote in the referendum. It's the mistake of their fathers," he said.

Accusations Of Ethnic Cleansing

Arabs have vehemently rejected the committee's decision to relocate Arabs from Kirkuk. On February 5 the Arab Republican Union (ARU), an organization representing Arabs living in Kirkuk, rejected the decision, dpa reported the same day.

Muhammad al-Khalil, a leading member of the ARU as well as a member of the normalization committee, denounced the proposal and threatened to resign from the committee unless it amended the decision. "We reject these new decisions and consider them forced migration," he said.

The Sunni-led Muslim Scholars Association issued a statement on its website on February 7 saying it "strongly condemns the process of ethnic cleansing by certain political parties in the Kirkuk Governorate, the decision moves the country towards a new crisis that will only serve the enemies of Iraq."

A leading member of the Iraqi Turkoman Front, Saad al-Din Arkij, said the committee's decision was an attempt by the Kurds to radically change to the city's demographics, "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on February 5. He warned that given the increased tensions among the city's different ethnic groups, "issuing a decision such as this one at a time like this will lead to a clash between the nationalities."

Threat Of Violence Looms

The decision by the Higher Committee for Normalization, if implemented, has the potential to plunge northern Iraq into chaos. As the referendum planned for sometime this year approaches, there has been much speculation that violence may also increase.

According to police sources, 319 people were killed, 1,383 were wounded, and 69 unidentified bodies were found in Kirkuk in 2006, the Kurdish paper "Awene" reported on January 23. During the first three weeks of 2007, bombings and attacks have killed 23 people and injured 102, police officials said.

One of the most violent attacks to strike the city was on February 3, when five bombings in Kirkuk killed 10 people and wounded more than 50. One of the bombings targeted the offices of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in central Kirkuk.

While much of the violence seems to be the result of communal tensions, Iraqi and U.S. officials have said there are indications that Al-Qaeda elements have recently surfaced in the city. The Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq has issued a statement claiming responsibility for the February 3 Kirkuk bombings, the SITE Institute reported.

Moreover, the majority of Arabs being relocated are Shi'a and the perception of a "forced relocation" of Shi'a by the Kurds could also raise tensions within the Shi'ite community.

Sheikh Ra'ad al-Najafi, a Shi'ite Arab cleric at the Kirkuk office of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's movement, rejected the committee's decision, and warned that it could lead to instability in the region, the UN Integrate Regional Information Networks reported on February 7. "We will not leave Kirkuk by force or without force," he said. "If they [Kurds] try to force us out of the city, then there will be dangerous reactions against them."

There is increasing anxiety among Iraqi and U.S. officials that the tensions in Kirkuk could develop into a new violent front in Iraq. While additional U.S. forces are planning to quell the violence in Baghdad and the western Al-Anbar Governorate, the situation in Kirkuk could rapidly deteriorate. With the country already mired in what some describe as a civil war, a major conflagration in the north would be disastrous for Iraq.

Iraq's Kurdish Region

Iraq's Kurdish Region

KURDISH AWAKENING: The ethnic Kurdish region in the northern part of Iraq has struggled in recent years to reestablish its cultural and political identity after decades of oppression under the regime of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. In December, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel traveled to this area and filed several reports:

Relative Peace Underscores Issue Of Kurdish Region's Future

Kurdish Culture Begins To Flourish In Kurdistan Region

Kurds Ponder How To Strengthen Autonomy After Elections

Irbil’s Kurds Live On A Hill Of Undiscovered Treasures

THE COMPLETE STORY: RFE/RL's complete coverage of events in Iraq and that country's ongoing transition.