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Saturday, May 22, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Kurds demand a top post in new Iraqi government
By Robin Wright and Peter Slevin
WASHINGTON Iraq's Kurdish leaders told a top U.S. envoy in Iraq yesterday that they want one of the two top positions in the new interim government president or prime minister or the Kurds will not participate in the body that is scheduled to take control in the June 30 handover, according to Kurdish and U.S. sources.
The Kurds were slated to take a lower position one of two vice presidents in a formula designed by U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi that the Bush administration hoped to unveil next week. But Jalal Talabani, a veteran Kurdish leader and one of 25 members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, informed U.S. presidential envoy Robert Blackwill yesterday that the Kurds would not take the job, Kurdish and U.S. sources said.
The move is a serious setback that complicates U.S. hopes of winning agreement from Iraq's disparate ethnic and religious factions on the makeup of the interim government. Unless the Kurds back down or U.S. and U.N. envoys negotiate a compromise soon, the process of forming a government could take longer than expected and deepen rivalries, experts on Iraq warned.
The Bush administration hopes the Kurds are merely posturing and can eventually be brought around, rather than be blamed for sabotaging the third attempt to form a government.
"This is jockeying for position and status. It strikes me as politics. It's good to see and messy to watch," said a senior State Department official involved in Iraq policy. "It's how committee assignments get made in our Congress. It's part of working the process, and the kind of thing you work through. Talks (on a new government) are proceeding apace."
But Talabani and Massoud Barzani, who lead the two main Kurdish parties, have together insisted the Kurds must have one of the top two positions in order to create balance with Iraq's majority Arab population.
"The two Kurdish leaders are united. We believe the Kurds can be a bridge between the Sunnis and the Shiites," said a senior Kurdish official who requested anonymity. Although the majority of Iraq's 25 million people are Shiite Muslims, most Kurds are Sunnis, bolstering the Sunni minority that has felt marginalized since the ouster of Saddam Hussein.
The Kurds, long buffeted by more powerful neighbors, enjoyed 13 years of increasing autonomy and prosperity in a protected security zone since the Gulf War. With Saddam's government gone and the Kurdish northern sectors being folded back into a united Iraq, Kurds are worried about losing power and influence.
Some analysts believe Kurdish politicians, who have formally forsworn long-standing demands for independence, will continue to seek as much autonomy as possible in negotiations over the interim government.
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