BAGHDAD, Iraq, Sept 27 (Reuters) - Iraqi authorities expect to begin paying compensation next week to thousands of Arab families prepared to leave the northern city of Kirkuk under a relocation plan, a government minister said on Thursday.
Under the so-called "normalisation" plan, enshrined in Iraq’s constitution, Arab families who moved to Kirkuk in the 1970s and 1980s under Saddam Hussein will get 20 million dinars ($16,000) if they return to their places of origin voluntarily.
The plan is a key element in preparations for an eventual referendum on the status of the multi-ethnic city, which Iraq’s Kurds want to become a part of their autonomous region.
Some Iraqi Arabs and ethnic Turkmen who do not want to leave fear they may be forced out if the vote goes ahead and want it postponed or shelved. Analysts fear a bloodbath if it takes place against the wishes of other sects.
"I have signed 2,400 cheques to be handed over starting next week for Arab families who have completed the process of moving from Kirkuk to other parts of the country," said Environment Minister Nermeen Othman during a visit to Kirkuk.
"There are 9,450 Arab families starting the procedure to move," Othman, who is a Kurd and a member of a committee set up to implement the plan, told Reuters.
Kirkuk is an ethnically mixed city of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, 250 km (155 miles) north of Baghdad, that sits atop rich oil fields.
According to Ihsan Guli, acting mayor of Kirkuk city, there are some 70,000 Arab families, or about 230,000 people, who moved there in the early 1980s as Kurds and Turkmen were expelled under Saddam’s Arabisation policy.
The "normalisation" plan has drawn criticism from some Arabs who fear it is an attempt to influence the demographics of Kirkuk ahead of the planned referendum.
Kurdish nationalists want Kirkuk included in their autonomous region just to the north of the ancient city.
They want the plebiscite held by the end of 2007, as stated in the constitution, although the deputy speaker of parliament in Baghdad said last week there was little chance of this given that time was running out to prepare for the vote.
Kurdish officials have repeatedly said they have no plans to separate from Iraq.
Neighbouring Turkey fears Iraqi Kurds will take control of Kirkuk and make it the capital of a new state, possibly reigniting separatism among its own sizeable Kurdish population.
Mohamed Khalil, an Arab representative on the committee implementing the relocation plan, put the number of families prepared to leave so far at just over 1,000.
He told Reuters 100 families were set to get compensation cheques next week while another 1,000 had started the procedures needed to return to their places of origin.