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Kurdish leader sees authoritarian drift in Iraq

Massoud Barzani, head of the Kurdish semiautonomous region, says moves by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki threaten the nation's unity and have raised concerns among the Kurdish minority.

January 11, 2009|Ned Parker

SALAHUDDIN, IRAQ — The president of Iraq's Kurdish region charged Saturday that Prime Minister Nouri Maliki was drifting toward authoritarian rule, in the latest sign of the dangerous rift that has emerged between the Iraqi leader and his partners in the country's ruling coalition.

"One gets lost in absolute authority," said Massoud Barzani, the leader of the semi- autonomous Kurdistan region in Iraq's north. "You become too authoritarian, you lose yourself."

In an interview at his palatial office here, Barzani accused Maliki of working to purge Kurds from the Iraqi security forces. And citing concerns about changes to the constitution, he refused to rule out the possibility that Kurdistan could declare independence from Iraq.

"For sure, we will not accept an Iraq ruled by dictatorship," he said, sitting in a room with a view of the snow-topped Zagros mountains.

The Kurds, who are scattered across several Middle Eastern nations, have long fought to establish their own state. Iraq's Kurdistan is the closest that the ethnic minority has come to achieving its nationalist dreams. But now, 18 years after the Kurds achieved de facto independence, the population once again is worried that Iraq's Arabs could turn on them.

Barzani said he hopes that an upcoming visit by Maliki to Kurdistan and a series of working groups set up in November would go a long way toward resolving the problems.

His comments in the hour-long interview with the Los Angeles Times veered from direct attacks on the prime minister's record to the conciliatory. He denied rumors that efforts were underway by parties in the government to replace Maliki.

Barzani, dressed in an olive military shirt, baggy traditional pantaloons, sash and cummerbund, and a headdress, appeared to grapple with his turbulent relations with Maliki. He described how he had intervened to block an attempt to overthrow Maliki in spring 2007 and how he had offered crucial support last year when an embattled Maliki ordered his forces into the southern city of Basra.

A veteran of the guerrilla struggle against Saddam Hussein's regime, Barzani demanded a reason for what he felt was the prime minister's desertion of the Kurds.

"We want to know. It is also a surprise for us. In Arabic there is a saying that absolute authority could lead to an individual losing insight or [his] bearing. In other words, his character would be lost in absolute authority," he said.

Barzani said he was stunned by Maliki's behavior. The prime minister, whose Islamic Dawa Party joined the Kurds in fighting Hussein from the mountains of northern Iraq in the 1980s, has courted Arab nationalists hostile to the Kurds and called for the strengthening of the central government, which the Kurds fear could rob them of their autonomy.

"I never expected that he would be opposing the rights of the Kurdish people, or he would be opposing the existence of . . . peshmerga or Kurds within the Iraqi army and he would be marginalizing them," he said. "Unfortunately, this is what is happening and we are disappointed by that."

Recent events have proved alarming for the Kurds, particularly an effort in the summer by Sunni and Shiite Arab lawmakers to get a jump on the Kurds with their own solution regarding the disputed northern oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which Kurds want to incorporate into their region.

Since then, Kurds say, they have watched Maliki transfer Kurdish units out of provinces such as Nineveh, where veterans of the Kurdish peshmerga forces that fought Hussein have dominated the Iraqi army. Maliki has also called for the constitution to be revised, which the Kurds consider a direct threat to their powers in northern Iraq.

The tensions have evoked a feeling of betrayal among Kurds.

"The personal aspect derives from the relationship that the Kurds had with the Shiite Islamist parties during the time of exile," said Iraq expert Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group.

The developments have already provoked a war of words between Maliki and Barzani.

In November, Barzani said the central government was increasingly sliding toward one-party rule, but steered clear of direct insults against the prime minister.

Soon after, Maliki criticized the Kurds for signing their own contracts with foreign oil companies. He also suggested that Kurdish forces were arresting and torturing Arabs in disputed regions.

On Saturday, Barzani discussed the quarrel over the long-stalled national oil law, which is supposed to govern relations among provinces on oil revenue and contract signing. Barzani faulted the central government for not agreeing to a compromise that would have allowed regions to sign oil contracts with foreign companies. The Kurds have not waited for a law to proceed with such contracts.

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