KIRKUK, Iraq, Oct 3 (Reuters) Abu Mohammed, a 60-year-old Iraqi Arab, moved to the oil-producing city of Kirkuk 28 years ago because of incentives that included a home offered by Saddam Hussein's Arab nationalist government.
But times have changed in Kirkuk, a mixing pot of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Turkmen and Armenians 250 km north of Baghdad which is potentially Iraq's next flashpoint.
Abu Mohammed has decided to accept a compensation offer of 20 million Iraqi dinars (about 16,000 dollars) to voluntarily move his family of 10 back to Samawa in southern Iraq, part of a ''normalisation'' plan enshrined in Iraq's constitution.
''I saw that it was best for me and my family to return to our original province because, whether we like it or not, Arab migrants will leave sooner or later,'' he told Reuters yesterday.
The ''normalisation'' plan is an attempt to return Kirkuk to its earlier demographic make-up before Saddam Hussein's ''Arabisation'' plan in the 1970s and 1980s when Kurds and Turkmens were expelled.
It is a key element in preparations for a referendum -- due by the end of the year -- 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 Turkmen who do not want to leave fear they may be forced out if the vote goes ahead and they want the poll postponed or shelved. Analysts fear a bloodbath if it takes place against the wishes of the other, non-Kurdish sects.
Estimates of the number of migrant Arabs in Kirkuk vary greatly. Kirkuk's acting mayor Ihsan Guli says there are 70,000 Arab families, or roughly 230,000 people, out of a population of about three quarters of a million.
Iraq's Environment Minister Nermeen Othman, a Kurd, put the number much higher, at close to 135,000 families. He has said 9,450 Arab families have started procedures to move.
FED UP WITH PREJUDICE Mohammed Khalil al-Jubouri, an Arab member of the committee in charge of ensuring compensation to those who relocate, said many of the families who have claimed the resettlement money had already moved out of the city.
''The number of families who have registered for compensation are currently about 1,000 families, the majority of which come from southern Iraq,'' Jubouri said.
''Most of these families had already left Kirkuk anyway ...
some of these families had come back to register after they heard of the compensation,'' he said.
Um Zayneb, a 50-year-old mother of seven, said she was fed up with the prejudice against Arab settlers like herself.
''I am not allowed to work in Kirkuk anymore, that's why I want to go back to Amara,'' she said, referring to a poor southern Shi'ite city, as she stood outside the provincial council office to complete her paperwork.
''I've been here for more than 25 years, but however long that is, we will always feel like strangers.'' REUTERS PD HT0915