Kurds could opt out of next Iraqi govern­ment - pres­i­dent

The pres­i­dent of Iraqi Kur­dis­tan, Ma­soud Barzani, said Iraq had been led in an author­i­tar­ian di­rec­tion by Prime Min­is­ter Nuri al-Ma­liki and threat­ened to end the oil-rich au­ton­o­mous re­gion's par­tic­i­pa­tion in the federal govern­ment.

The Kurdish Globe - - FRONT PAGE - By Ned Parker and Is­abel Coles (Edit­ing by Anna Wil­lard)

Iraq held elec­tions on April 30. The re­sults have yet to be an­nounced but Kur­dish sup­port is cru­cial to Ma­liki's am­bi­tions for a third term. The in­cum­bent pre­mier's ri­vals, both Shi'ite and Sunni, are hop­ing Barzani and the Kurds will help them thwart Ma­liki's bid to stay in of­fice for four more years.

Barzani said Kur­dish par­ties would meet as soon as the re­sults of the elec­tion were of­fi­cially an­nounced, ex­pected in the next few days, to de­cide how to pro­ceed in ne­go­ti­a­tions over the govern­ment for­ma­tion.

The talks could drag on for months and Barzani de­clined to give any more de­tails of the Kurds' po­si­tion but said the po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in Iraq was un­sus­tain­able and one op­tion would be to fully with­draw Kur­dish par­tic­i­pa­tion in the govern­ment un­less there was the prospect of change.

"All op­tions are on the ta­ble," Barzani told Reuters in an in­ter­view on Mon­day. "It is time for fi­nal de­ci­sions. We are not go­ing to wait an­other decade and go through the same ex­pe­ri­ence again. If we boy­cott the process, we will boy­cott ev­ery­thing (par­lia­ment and the govern­ment)."

Such a move would be the first of its kind for the Kurds, who have been a part­ner in the na­tional govern­ment since the U.S.-led in­va­sion of Iraq in 2003, and would put added strain on the coun­try's al­ready fray­ing federal unity.

There are about 5 mil­lion Kurds in ma­jor­ity Arab Iraq, which has a pop­u­la­tion of more than 30 mil­lion. Most Kurds live in the north of the coun­try, where they run their own af­fairs, but re­main re­liant on Bagh­dad for a share of the na­tional budget.

The Kurds even­tu­ally lined up be­hind Ma­liki af­ter the last elec­tion in 2010, help­ing him win a sec­ond term, per­suaded by prom­ises to share power and set­tle the sta­tus of ter­ri­to­ries dis­puted by Arabs and Kurds.

How­ever, the Kurds say those prom­ises were bro­ken and the deal un­rav­elled al­most as soon as the govern­ment took of­fice. Re­la­tions be­tween the two sides rapidly de­te­ri­o­rated there­after and are now char­ac­terised by deep mis­trust.

Barzani then threw his weight be­hind an un­suc­cess­ful at­tempt to un­seat Ma­liki with a vote of no con­fi­dence in 2012, and must now work out how to en­sure Bagh­dad keeps any prom­ises it makes if the Kurds agree to share power again.

Barzani de­clined to go into the de­tails of how the Kurds planned to guar­an­tee their de­mands are met, but he said he would be seek­ing more than paper guar­an­tees.

Barzani con­ceded Ma­liki was not solely to blame for Iraq's trou­bles, but said as prime min­is­ter and com­man­der in chief of the armed forces he ul­ti­mately bore the re­spon­si­bil­ity.

"There was no part­ner­ship, and it was to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism," said Barzani of gov­er­nance in Iraq un­der Ma­liki over the past four years. "He is the num­ber one re­spon­si­ble for it. He was ca­pa­ble of not al­low­ing the whole process to go in that di­rec­tion."

"The au­thor­i­ties in Bagh­dad want to con­trol ev­ery­thing ... It is not ac­cept­able to us. We want to be part­ners; we don't want to be sub­jects."

Barzani em­pha­sized re­peat­edly his dis­pute with Ma­liki, who once fought against de­posed dic­ta­tor Sad­dam Hus­sein along­side the Kurds, was "not per­sonal", said he had changed since be­com­ing Prime Min­is­ter.

"The Ma­liki that we knew be­fore be­ing in power was dif­fer­ent than the Ma­liki who has been in power," he said.

Eco­nomic In­de­pen­dence

De­spite the hos­til­i­ties, some Kur­dish of­fi­cials ad­mit in pri­vate a deal could be reached with Ma­liki, if only to buy time while their re­gion, no longer be­liev­ing in an al­liance with Bagh­dad, pulls away.

The Kurds are al­ready mov­ing to­wards eco­nomic in­de­pen­dence, and late last year fin­ished build­ing an oil pipe­line to Turkey that could in the­ory make them self-suf­fi­cient, fur­ther ril­ing Bagh­dad, which slashed fund­ing to the re­gion in re­venge.

"Those who cut the budget of Kur­dis­tan are go­ing to pay the price of that de­ci­sion," Barzani said. "If by cut­ting the budget and black­mail­ing us they think the Kurds will not con­tinue ask­ing for their le­git­i­mate de­mands, they are wrong."

The Kurds say they are con­sti­tu­tion­ally en­ti­tled to ex­port oil on their own terms, and more than 2 mil­lion bar­rels have al­ready flowed through the new pipe­line into stor­age tanks at a Turk­ish port. Bagh­dad has threat­ened dire con­se­quences if ex­ports go ahead with­out federal con­sent, but Barzani said there was no go­ing back.

"The po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sion has been made that we're go­ing to sell oil in­de­pen­dently," he said. "We will con­tinue pro­duc­ing the oil, pump­ing it out and sell­ing it. If they con­tinue es­ca­lat­ing, we will also es­ca­late from our side."

Barzani made clear that the Kurds could hold a ref­er­en­dum on in­de­pen­dence if Bagh­dad pushed them too far, re­peat­ing a threat he has made in the past.

"If they don't like us to be with them, they should tell us and we will take an­other path as well," he said. "We are go­ing to have a ref­er­en­dum and ask our people. What­ever the people de­cide".

Ma­liki may seek to ex­ploit di­vi­sions among the Kurds them­selves to weaken their bar­gain­ing po­si­tion in Bagh­dad, by court­ing the Pa­tri­otic Union of Kur­dis­tan (PUK), which is seek­ing to re­assert it­self af­ter po­lit­i­cal set­backs.

Some Kur­dish of­fi­cials worry that the PUK, which has shared power with Barzani's own Kur­dis­tan Demo­cratic Party (KDP) since the re­gion gained au­ton­omy could threaten to break ranks and join with Ma­liki in or­der to re­gain lever­age at home.

But Ma­liki is also fac­ing a chal­lenge in the Sunni heart­land prov­ince of An­bar, where his army has been wag­ing war since the start of the year, when tribal fighters and Is­lamist in­sur­gents over­ran sev­eral towns.

Ma­liki's crit­ics, in­clud­ing Barzani, ac­cuse him of go­ing on the of­fen­sive against Iraq's Sunni mi­nor­ity to whip up sup­port among his own Shi'ite base as se­cu­rity de­te­ri­o­rated across the coun­try, dam­ag­ing his cre­den­tials.

"To ig­nite a war in or­der to achieve po­lit­i­cal gains is a catas­tro­phe," Barzani said. "I do be­lieve it (the sit­u­a­tion in An­bar) ended up like that. Maybe in the be­gin­ning it was a dif­fer­ent story."

Asked whether he was con­cerned the of­fen­sive in An­bar could set a prece­dent for deal­ing with sim­i­lar prob­lems in other parts of the coun­try, Barzani said: "In any coun­try, if they pur­sue that strat­egy, that means the end of that coun­try."

"That will be the end of Iraq, and that is the most dan­ger­ous is­sue."

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