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Kurds, Shiites meet to discuss forming coalition government

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Kurdish leaders flew to Baghdad on Monday to hammer out an agreement with a Shiite alliance that was the leading vote-getter in January's national elections, in the hopes of creating a coalition with a majority big enough to form a government.

The meeting, which started at 5 p.m. local time, wasn't expected to produce a final agreement. Both sides said they planned on taking a draft back to their parties for approval Tuesday, but insisted that Wednesday's scheduled first meeting of the National Assembly would go ahead as planned, even if no coalition had been formed.

The two sides differ on a variety of issues, from the status of the Kurdish militia to the number of ministries that each group should control. They're disputing the share of Iraq's oil revenues that the semi-autonomous Kurdish region should receive and have even debated how Iraq's supreme court should be appointed.

There's also been discussion of how quickly Kurds whom Saddam Hussein forced to leave the city of Kirkuk will be allowed to return. Kirkuk, which controls vital oil reserves, isn't part of present-day Iraqi Kurdistan.

The United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of parties blessed by Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, won 140 of the assembly's 275 seats—a majority, but not the two-thirds it needs to make most of the major decisions. The Kurdish coalition has 77 seats, putting it in a kingmaker position.

Together the two groups will have enough votes to get a new constitution approved, appoint a president and approve the president's nomination for prime minister. But without the Kurds, the dominant Shiite alliance will be unable to form a government.

The Kurds are unwilling to give up the relative autonomy they've enjoyed since 1991, when the United States began enforcing a no-fly zone over Kurdistan to stop Saddam from persecuting people there.

Representatives from both sides confirmed that the Kurds have demanded guarantees that they can keep their Peshmerga militia independent of the national army and that the national army will have to get permission from their regional government before entering Kurdistan, a restriction the Shiites chafe at, especially since the Kurds also are demanding a share of the national budget to fund the Peshmerga.

The Kurds want more than the 17 percent of national revenue originally allocated to them. And they want guarantees that they'll have a say on issues before the assembly that won't require a two-thirds majority, such as the appointment of a supreme court.

"The federal courts, which will have their headquarters in Baghdad, will be the highest authority in Iraq," said Delzar Arif Hassan, spokesman for one of the Kurd parties. "The Shiites are saying that the appointment of the seven members should be by majority, while the Kurds believe that it should be by agreement."

Some members of the Shiite alliance are beginning to complain that the Kurds are asking too much.

"The Kurds' demands are increasing," said Nabil al-Musawi, of the Iraqi National Congress, one of the parties in the alliance. "They should not overplay their hands. ... Their demands are exceeding even their representation in the assembly."

Al-Musawi acknowledged that both sides were under pressure to come up with an agreement. The delay has begun to anger their constituencies.

"They have the right to be angry because they've risked their lives," he said. "They went out to vote for a government and this government should perform its duty and start its work. People in Iraq have lost their patience."

Monday's meeting came after an earlier draft agreement was announced but then rejected by the parties.

The once-dominant Sunni Arabs, Iraq's other large minority, have been mostly marginalized from the political process since most Sunni leaders urged their constituents to boycott the vote.


(Nesmith reports for The Miami Herald. Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Shatha al Awsy and Omar Jassim contributed to this report from Baghdad.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.