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Kurds to withhold support of government without rights guarantee

IRBIL, Iraq—In an angry letter to President Bush, Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq have threatened to derail the newly formed Iraqi government by withdrawing their ministers from the Cabinet and boycotting upcoming elections unless a proposed U.N. Security Council resolution on Iraqi sovereignty guarantees Kurdish rights.

Kurdish political chieftains Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani told Bush that without such a guarantee, Kurdish politicians might not participate in the transitional government.

U.N. diplomats were working on the final wording of the resolution Monday. A vote on the measure could come as early as Tuesday, though France apparently is still insisting that the new Iraqi government be given a veto over U.S. offensive combat operations in Iraq.

It was unclear if such a veto would be acceptable to the United States. Secretary of State Colin Powell, visiting Ecuador for a meeting of Western Hemisphere nations, said the issue of Iraq's relationship with the coalition forces had been dealt with in letters that he and Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi sent to the Security Council's president over the weekend.

The letters promise that the two sides will consult "on the full range of fundamental security and policy issues, including policy on sensitive offensive operations."

"Now that there is agreement between the sovereign government of Iraq ... and the coalition forces ... that should be adequate," Powell said.

He didn't address the Kurdish concerns.

In Washington, a senior Bush administration official said he thought the administration had resolved the Kurds' concerns. But Qubad Talabani, Talabani's son and a Kurdish representative in Washington, said Bush administration officials had yet to respond to the letter. "We're waiting for a response," he said.

As longtime allies of the United States, the Kurdish leaders said they've felt slighted by recent developments in Baghdad: Arabs got the top two posts in the new government, money for reconstruction has been shifted to the south to mollify the insurgents there and U.S. officials have "demeaned" the Kurdish paramilitary fighters—the renowned peshmerga—by referring to them as a "militia."

Early drafts of the U.N. resolution didn't specifically mention Kurdish rights. Nor was there any reference to the Transitional Administrative Law, the wide-ranging document that codifies and guarantees a role for the Kurdish minority in Iraq.

The transitional law stipulates, for example, that both Kurdish and Arabic will be the official languages of Iraq. The languages would be used on Iraqi currency, passports and public documents.

A senior Kurdish politician, speaking on condition of anonymity, said privately that a reference to the transitional law in the U.N. resolution probably would satisfy Kurdish demands.

"That internationalizes things for us," he said. "It puts our status on the international record. Without it, we have no assurance of our rights."

A leading Kurdish politician, Nechervan Barzani, said the U.N. resolution was shaping up as "a great frustration for the Kurdish people." "The Kurds would not oppose the Americans, but we would not participate in Baghdad," he said in remarks carried by a Kurdish Web site.

As there are least eight Kurdish appointees among the 35 members of the new government, a Kurdish pullout would clearly endanger the fledgling government as it heads toward a June 30 takeover from the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority.

There are about 5 million Kurds among Iraq's 24 million people. Most of them live in the north, with another 1 million or so in Baghdad.

In their letter to Bush, a copy of which was obtained by Knight Ridder, Talabani and Barzani said they were "bitterly disappointed" that a Kurd hadn't been appointed prime minister or president in the new interim government.

"We were told these positions must go to a Shiite Arab and Sunni Arab, respectively," they said. "Iraq is a country of two main nationalities, Arabs and Kurds. It seems reasonable that the Arabs might get one of the two top jobs, but then the other should go to a Kurd."

After Allawi was named prime minister, the Kurds pressed to have Talabani get the presidency. But they were rebuffed.

Instead, they got a number of powerful ministerial posts, including deputy prime minister (Barham Saleh), deputy president (Rowsch Shaways), foreign affairs (Hoshyar Zebari), human rights (Bakhityar Amin), public works (Nesreen Mustafa Berwari) and water resources (Abdul-Latif Rasheed).

The Talabani-Barzani letter emphasized the key role that Kurdish troops played in toppling Saddam Hussein a year ago. The peshmerga—"those who face death"—fought alongside small teams of U.S. special forces in the often-overlooked northern campaign.

The letter pointed out that Kurdish forces took "more casualties than any other U.S. ally." Since the end of the military campaign, no coalition soldiers have been killed in the generally stable Kurdish region.

"The Kurds have sided with the U.S.-led coalition since Day 1," Kurdish political commentator Eamad Mazouri said. "Instead of being rewarded, they have been sidelined."

Kurdish leaders also complain that the violent insurgencies in Baghdad and southern Iraq have drained promised resources from the north. They have demanded that the Kurdish region receive its share of $19 billion in reconstruction funds appropriated by Congress.


(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Warren P. Strobel in Quito, Ecuador, and Jonathan S. Landay in Washington contributed to this report.)


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.