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Iraqi prime minister says dispute with Kurds resolved

Iraq's interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi addresses reporters in Baghdad on Thursday. Faleh Kheiber / Reuters
/ Source: news services

Iraq has resolved a dispute over Kurdish autonomy that threatened to split the country’s fledgling government, Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said Thursday.

Kurdish leaders had threatened to quit Allawi’s government unless the U.N. Security Council backed Kurdish autonomy in a resolution that was unanimously adopted Tuesday.

“This issue has been resolved,” Allawi told reporters, saying he discussed it with Kurdish leaders in Baghdad. He gave no further details, but a spokesman, Gorgues Hermez Sada, said the government intended to honor the interim constitution while Iraq makes the transition to elections, which are expected next year.

There was no immediate response from Kurdish leaders.

The resolution adopted unanimously Tuesday by the 15-member U.N. Security Council refers to the government’s commitment to a federal Iraq, but it does not mention a transitional law passed in March that guarantees Kurdish self-rule in the north.

Warnings from Kurdish parties
The omission drew warnings Wednesday from Kurdish parties Wednesday that they might bolt the new government if Shiites gain too much power.

With the formal end to the U.S.-led occupation only 20 days away, the interim government cannot afford tension between Kurds and majority Shiites, whose top cleric had sworn to oppose the U.N. measure if it endorsed the transitional law. Shiites are believed to compromise about 60 percent of Iraq’s 25 million population while Kurds number around 15 percent.

One of Iraq’s two main Kurdish leaders, Jalal Talabani, on Thursday gave the U.N. resolution mixed grades.

“We are happy that the Security Council resolution mentioned federalism, but we regret that it did not mention the Kurdish people,” he told a Kurdish television station.

But on Wednesday, Barham Salih, 44, of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and an American favorite, announced he would not accept the post of deputy prime minister for national security unless the powers were spelled out “appropriate to the position, sacrifice and important role of the Kurdish people,” the PUK’s KurdSat television reported.

The British-educated Salih, prime minister of the part of Kurdish Iraq run by the PUK, would be the second highest-ranking Kurd in the interim government.

Allawi and his coalition partners are attempting to walk a fine line in shaping a government that is acceptable to both the Kurds and mainstream Shiites.

Shiite leader won concession
The country’s most prominent Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, had warned he would not accept mention of the interim charter in the U.N. resolution. Shiites oppose parts of the charter that give Kurds a veto over a permanent constitution due to be drawn up next year.

While courting mainstream Shiites, the government has outlawed the Mehdi Army militia of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, leader of an anti-U.S. revolt that erupted in April. s erupted on Thursday in Najaf, the first clash in the holy city since the Shiite militia agreed to a truce with U.S.-led forces last week.

Allawi announced Tuesday a plan to demobilize up to 100,000 fighters loyal to nine factions that had opposed Saddam Hussein. Many are to join Iraq’s nascent armed forces.

The deal covers about 75,000 Kurdish peshmerga forces, but not Sadr’s militia.

Allawi also accused foreign militants of involvement in repeated sabotage of oil installations that has sapped Iraq’s efforts at reconstruction since last year’s U.S.-led invasion.

Oil revenue ‘stolen’ by terrorists
“More than $200 million has been stolen out of the pockets of a sovereign Iraqi government through the loss of oil revenues resulting from attacks to pipelines,” Allawi said.

“These saboteurs are not freedom fighters. They are terrorists and foreign fighters, opposed to our very survival as a free state,” he said in a statement.

Bombers mounted their latest attack on oil facilities Wednesday, blowing up a pipeline that carries crude from Iraq’s Kirkuk fields to its biggest refinery. 

The Kurds could pose the biggest problem for Allawi's interim government, as well as plans to install a democratically elected government in Iraq by 2006, if their concerns are not addressed.

Before Tuesday's U.N. vote, Kurdish leaders Talabani of the PUK and Massoud Barzani of the KDP warned they might withdraw Kurdish officials from the interim government, refuse to take part in national elections next year and “bar representatives of the central government from Kurdistan" if the resolution didn't refer to the interim charter.

The interim charter, adopted in March, affirms the principle of federalism and gave the Kurds an effective veto over the permanent constitution to be drafted next year.

Kurds fear that the interim constitution, which the Americans hailed as the most progressive in the Middle East, will be sidelined once the occupation ends and the Shiite clergy gains ascendancy.

Many Kurds favor independence
The Kurds have been running their own autonomous mini-state since 1991, and many Kurds would prefer their own independent country.

At the United Nations, Secretary-General Kofi Annan sought to reassure the Kurds, saying that while the resolution doesn’t refer to the constitution, it “does have language that refers to a united federal democratic Iraq.”

Diplomats said reference to the interim constitution was omitted because of opposition by al-Sistani.

In a statement addressed to the U.N. Security Council earlier this week, al-Sistani warned that mentioning the interim charter in the resolution would be “an act against the will of the Iraqi people and will have dangerous results.”

He denounced the charter, saying it was “put in place by an unelected council, under the shadow of occupation” — referring to the U.S.-picked Governing Council that approved it.

Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, the first Kurd to hold the post, said he had lobbied unsuccessfully for an acknowledgment of the charter during his meetings at the Security Council last week.

But he said he was satisfied that the “spirit” of the charter was in the final resolution. Still, Kurdish leaders in Iraq were unconvinced.

The U.N. resolution also gives Iraq's new leaders clout over a U.S.-led force.

The measure authorizes the U.S.-led multinational force for Iraq, but says the mandate will end when a constitutionally elected government takes power, expected by early 2006, or if the Iraqi government requests it.

It also gives the Iraqi government control over its oil revenues.