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Iraq's Kurds hold keys to new government

Once an oppressed minority under Saddam Hussein, the Kurds of Iraq’s north are now kingmakers and play a crucial role in shaping Iraq's  future government.
Leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party
Kurdish leaders, including Massoud Barzani, center, leader of the Kurdish parliament, hold a news conference on Jan. 7 in Arbil, Iraq, after they agreed to bring three Kurdish provinces under the same rule.Safin Hamed / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Once an oppressed minority under Saddam Hussein, the Kurds of Iraq’s north are now the kingmakers, hosting a string of visiting politicians from Sunni Arab and Shiite Muslim factions for consultations on shaping a future government.

The Dec. 15 national elections gave a lead role to the largely secular and independence-minded Iraqi Kurds because a two-thirds majority is needed to control parliament and no group is expected to come close to that.

Accounting for about 15 percent of the country’s people, the pragmatic Kurds say they will work with anyone willing to offer them something in return. Independence is their ultimate prize — even if the politicians don’t say it publicly.

Final election results may be released in the coming week, and the Kurds are set to win about 55 seats in the 275-member parliament and will likely mediate between the majority Shiites and minority Sunnis in cobbling together a coalition government.

The current governing religious Shiite bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, is expected to have as many as 130 seats, but that is far below the 184 needed to rule on its own. Sunni groups are heading for around 50 seats, while former Prime Minister Ayyad Allawi’s secular bloc could get 25.

Right now, religious Sunnis and religious Shiites are not happy with each other.

The Sunnis boycotted the first post-Saddam election last Jan. 30 and they complained of electoral fraud and voter intimidation in last month’s vote.

Shiites say the Sunnis complain too much about the election and should be concentrating on the politics of forming a government.

“The (Sunni coalition) Accordance Front has been making threats of violence to change the results,” Hussain al-Shahristani, a senior official in the United Iraqi Alliance and deputy speaker in the outgoing parliament, told The Associated Press. “They must understand that they cannot use violence to force their way into government.”

Important part of political equation
Ending the deadlock is where the Kurds come in.

“Kurds in Iraq are an important part of the Iraqi equation,” said Kamran al-Karadaghi, chief of staff to Jalal Talabani, the first Kurd to be Iraq’s president and leader of one of the two main Kurdish political parties.

“After Saddam’s fall, Iraqi Kurds abandoned their semi-independence to become part of a new Iraq ... a very effective part of it,” al-Karadaghi said.

Following the election for an interim legislature a year ago, Talabani helped broker often bitter negotiations between the Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni communities, leading to the government of current Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who is a Shiite.

“Of course the Kurds are an important factor now ... They will occupy a big chunk of the assembly,” said Nassir al-Ani of the Accordance Front, the main Sunni Arab coalition.

He and two colleagues from his group met at year’s end with Kurdistan regional President Massoud Barzani in Irbil to talk about the shape of a future government.

Brokering a deal
Al-Ani said his delegation asked Barzani to “put pressure on other parties” to meet Sunni demands for greater minority rights.

The Sunnis are demanding that voting be held again in some provinces, including Baghdad — the country’s largest with 59 seats in parliament.

Sunnis also are seeking Kurdish help in pressuring Shiites to accept amendments to the constitution adopted by national referendum in October, including a provision that keeps the central government weak in favor of strong provincial governments.

However, the leader of the fundamentalist Shiite religious bloc, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, insisted Tuesday that Shiites would not allow any substantive constitutional changes.

Al-Jaafari, the prime minister, also visited Barzani for talks as did al-Hakim, who also met with Talabani.

Al-Hakim’s talks in the north focused on who should get the top 12 government jobs, including Cabinet posts. The meetings were also widely seen as part of an effort to force Sunni Arab groups to come to the bargaining table.

The Shiite bloc needs the Kurds to form a government.

Balance among powers
The Kurds may want Shiites to agree to more powers for the president as a counterbalance to Shiite strength. The constitution gives nearly all executive powers to the prime minister, and Talabani has indicated he is not interested in a second term if the presidency is not given more authority.

“All the main political groups, especially the alliance, is talking about Talabani as a president for the next four years. If they really want him to be president, they should accept” his condition, al-Karadaghi said.

Kurdish leaders say privately that they do not favor al-Jaafari remaining as prime minister. Talabani and al-Jaafari did not get along in the eight months of the interim government. Talabani, in particular, felt al-Jaafari sought to monopolize power and threatened him with a “no confidence” vote in the interim legislature.

Talabani said recently that there was an agreement in principle on a forming national unity government with representatives of all the factions, but that striking a deal would be harder than after last year’s election. “The devil is in the details,” Talabani told reporters.

Kurdish politicians say they enjoy good relations with both Shiite Muslims and Sunni Arabs, even though for decades the Kurds — who are mostly Sunnis — suffered under the brutal regime of Saddam, also a Sunni.

Lingering distrust
But Kurdish leaders still have grievances. The Iraqi constitution allows their region autonomy close to independence, but not — for the time being — the oil city of Kirkuk. However, the Kurds can drill for oil and own any newly discovered reserves.

Distrust of both Sunnis and Shiites persists among the Kurdish population, a majority of whom want independence, not federalism. More than 2 million people favored independence in an unofficial referendum last January.

Iraq’s neighbors, notably Turkey, fear such a move would inspire their own Kurdish populations to renew separatist struggles.

For 13 years after the end of the 1991 Gulf War, Kurds lived in a semiautonomous region under the protection of Western warplanes, and Kurdish language and customs flourished.

Many Sunni Arabs, who comprise an estimated 20 percent of Iraq’s population and have long opposed Kurds’ aspirations, are beginning to accept the notion of a Kurdish federation in the north — as long as the rest of the country doesn’t follow their example.

“We don’t want to carve up the country into different parts,” said al-Ani, the Accordance Front official. “But the Kurdish federation is a fact on the ground. Kurds have their own ethnicity, customs and traditions.”