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Kurdish leaders weigh pulling out of new Iraqi government

IRBIL, Iraq—Kurdish leaders debated Wednesday whether to withdraw from the Iraqi transitional government, just one day after the passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution that authorized a transfer of power to Iraqis but failed to meet Kurdish demands for a guarantee of autonomy.

A Kurdish withdrawal would severely undermine the stability of the government and the unity of the country. President Bush, hosting the G-8 summit at Sea Island, Ga., had called the unanimous vote for the Security Council resolution "a great victory for the Iraqi people."

But not all Iraqis saw it that way.

Nasreen Berwari, the minister for public works in the new government, said Wednesday that she and the other Kurdish ministers were waiting on their marching orders from the Kurdish leadership. She said they were ready to quit the Cabinet if so ordered.

In a strongly worded letter to Bush last week, the two main Kurdish leaders, Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani, demanded that any new resolution include an affirmation of the Transitional Administrative Law, or TAL, which recognized Kurdish autonomy. Among other things, it made Kurdish and Arabic the two official languages of Iraq.

The resolution failed to meet those demands.

"There have been some recent declarations about forsaking the TAL," Barzani, the leader of the largest Kurdish political group, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, said Wednesday, referring to a remark by the powerful Shiite Muslim religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani. "If the law is canceled, the future of a unified Iraq will be in danger. Tampering with the destiny of the Kurds is against the democratic principles we all agreed on."

While Barzani's comments were ominous, they fell short of acting immediately on earlier threats to withdraw the eight Kurdish ministers from the newly appointed Iraqi Governing Council and Cabinet and boycott upcoming national elections.

The new Iraqi prime minister, Iyad Allawi, suggested Wednesday that the transitional law was alive and well, reminding people in a written statement that his authority, and that of the rest of his government, is based upon the law. "The Iraqi provisional government will fully comply with this law," he said.

The Kurds, who live mainly in the oil-rich north, make up 15 percent to 20 percent of the Iraqi population.

Despite Kurdish warnings, U.S. diplomats and U.N. negotiators had yielded to pressure from Sistani, who insisted there should be no mention of the Kurds or the TAL in the U.N. resolution. Shiite Muslims account for about 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people.

"This is rejected by most Iraqi people," Sistani said in a written statement Sunday. "Therefore, any attempt to make this `law' appear legitimate by including it in the international resolution is considered as contrary to the desire of the Iraqi people and a forewarning to dangerous consequences."

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan suggested Tuesday that the resolution would still be a salve for the wounded Kurds.

"The resolution doesn't say anything about the administrative law, but it does have language that refers to a unified democratic Iraq," Annan said, adding that "all sides should be able to work with it."

The final U.N. resolution, which went through at least four drafts, makes reference to "a federal, democratic, pluralist and unified Iraq."

It remains to be seen whether those seven words will be enough of an escape clause for the Kurdish politicians to make a face-saving retreat from their threat to quit the government.

Two senior Kurdish politicians said the Barzani-Talabani threat had been too heavy-handed. They suggested that Kurdish negotiators in the United States and in Baghdad had been outmaneuvered.

"This was a mistake; it's too early to threaten to withdraw," said Jabar Abdullah, head of the Irbil branch of Talabani's party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. "We have to keep struggling for our rights through diplomacy and democratic means."

The threat was "not the right position for the Kurds," said Fadhil Mirani, a top aide to Barzani, in an interview in Salahaddin.

"But the Americans and the British have an obligation to protect the Kurds, to recognize our rights under the interim government."


(McDonald reported from Irbil. Lasseter reported from Baghdad.)


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