Iraq backs plan to move city's Arabs


People stand by a car bomb wreck in Hillah, Iraq, on Saturday.

The Associated Press
Published: Sunday, April 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, April 1, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

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 virtually 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 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.

The ancient city of Kirkuk has a large minority of ethnic Turks as well as Christians, Shiite and Sunni Arabs, Armenians and Assyrians. The city is just south of the Kurdish autonomous zone stretching across three provinces of northeastern Iraq.

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.

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