BAGHDAD — Citing improved security in the capital, the Iraqi government said Tuesday it was shortening the Baghdad curfew by two hours and would allow citizens to be on the streets until 10 p.m.
The easing of the ban on movement around the city coincided with a one-day sharp drop in the number of people known to have been killed in sectarian violence nationwide. According to police and morgue reports, 18 people were killed or found dead Tuesday.
Violence in the capital has declined since the latest U.S.-Iraqi joint security operation began on Feb. 14, though there have been spectacular attacks.
But bloodshed has increased elsewhere in Iraq after insurgents and militiamen moved opera- tions out of the capital in advance of the security crackdown. Last week more than 600 people were killed nationwide in sectarian attacks, mainly truck and suicide bombings thought to be the work of Sunni insurgents or al-Qaida in Iraq.
Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, the spokesman for the Baghdad security operation, said the curfew had been shortened in the capital "because the security situation has improved and people needed more time to go shopping."
Since the start of the security operation, the military had enforced a 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. ban. Before that, the curfew had been 11 p.m. to 5 a.m.
Police in Samarra, however, said U.S. and Iraqi forces had taken up positions around the city, 60 miles north of Baghdad, and imposed an indefinite curfew starting at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
Samarra was the scene of an al-Qaida bombing of a Shiite holy shrine in February 2006. Many blame that attack for the eruption of sectarian violence that subsequently swept Baghdad and surrounding regions.
Shiite lawmakers, meanwhile, said the government decision that likely will hand the oil-rich city of Kirkuk to Kurdish control was forced on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki when Kurds threatened to walk out of his ruling coalition and bring down the government.
The threat and al-Maliki's capitulation dramatically outlined the prime minister's tenuous hold on power and further emphasized the possibility, some say the likelihood, that Iraq could break into Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni regions with little or no central government control.
A government collapse likely would have brought chaos to the 7-week-old Baghdad security operation with al-Maliki a lame duck premier and commander in chief of Iraqi forces.
"The Kurdish coalition exerted enormous pressure on us. One of them was a threat by Kurdish lawmakers to boycott parliament and by ministers to quit the government," said Haidar al-Abbadi, a member of al-Maliki's Dawa party. He described the Kurdish pressures as "blackmail."
At issue was Article 140 of Iraq's constitution that calls for a referendum in Kirkuk on the city's status by year's end. The government agreed Thursday, presumably on al-Maliki's orders and after the Kurdish threat, to a plan to resettle to their home regions Arabs who had been moved into Kirkuk after Saddam Hussein's Baath party came to power in 1968.
The plan is said to be voluntary and Arabs who agree would be paid $15,500 and given a piece of property in their regions of origin, according to former Justice Minister Hashim al-Shibli, who oversaw the committee on Kirkuk's future.
While the decision avoided what Shiite lawmaker Sami al-Askari said would have been "a major political crisis," he said the plan would "cost the government about $4 billion and that is a huge number."
Shiite and Sunni lawmakers have declared their opposition to the plan, although they have no say in the matter short of calling for a vote of confidence and bringing down the government.
Al-Shibli said the Sunnis had opposed the measure because the constitution, under which the al-Maliki government issued the plan, was still under review with Article 140 on Kirkuk likely to be one of the key clauses debated.
Al-Maliki took power on the promise, among several accommodations to the Sunnis, that within four months his government would sponsor a debate on possible constitutional amendments that would favor the minority sect. The debate has never taken place despite the deadline having passed at the end of September.
Much of Iraq's vast oil wealth lies under the ground in the Kirkuk region and in the Shiite-controlled south. While the Kurds refer to Kirkuk as the "Kurdish Jerusalem," control of the oil resources and the city's likely attachment to the Kurdish semiautonomous region just to the north was believed the driving motivation for the threat to bring down the government.
Kirkuk, according to the last census before the Baathists took power, had a majority Kurdish population. Tens of thousands of Kurds and non-Arabs fled Kirkuk in the 1980s and 1990s when Saddam's government implemented its "Arabization" policy. Kurds and non-Arabs were replaced by pro-government Arabs from the mainly Shiite south. Saddam accused the Kurds of siding with Iran in the 1980-1988 war with Tehran.
Kurdish legislator Abdul-Khaleq Zangana rejected charges that Kurdish politicians had exerted undue force. "They can call it whatever they want, whether blackmail or pressure but this is a Kurdish right that we will never abandon," he said.
Turkey, which has been fighting a Kurdish insurgency for decades, has warned Iraq against such a move, fearing its own Kurdish population might seek autonomy. Turkey is also worried about the fate of Kirkuk's Turkmen, or ethnic Turks.
The ancient city of Kirkuk has a large minority of ethnic Turks as well as Christians, Shiite and Sunni Arabs, Armenians and Assyrians.
As a possible preview of coming violence in the city, a suicide truck bomber crashed his explosives into a police station in Kirkuk on Monday and killed at least 15 people, including a baby girl and a U.S. soldier.