A senior Kurdish official warned Thursday that security gains in Iraq could evaporate if American troops withdraw on schedule in two years without a political accord among Sunni Arabs, Shi'ite Arabs and Kurds.
"We are facing a huge, huge problem" in that event, said Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to the president of Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government, Massoud Barzani.
Mr. Hussein told editors and reporters of The Washington Times that a recent uptick in suicide bombings in Baghdad show what could happen if key agreements are not reached regarding the division of powers between the central government and provinces, oil production and the status of disputed territory and cities such as Kirkuk.
"If the problems which exist now cannot be resolved in one or two years, the withdrawal of the American army will lead to unrest in Baghdad and perhaps a return of sectarian fighting," he said.
Under the Status of Forces Agreement approved by Iraq's parliament in November, all U.S. troops are supposed to withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011. Nonetheless, the U.S. military has signed some contracts to sell Iraq helicopters, planes and tanks that would require training and delivery of equipment beyond that date.
Referring to recent bombings in Baghdad, Mr. Hussein raised the prospect that al Qaeda, which U.S. and Iraqi forces claim to have defeated in the western part of the country, may still have an offensive capability.
"In the end, these attacks in Baghdad have to do partly with the Ba'ath party [of deposed ruler Saddam Hussein] and partly with al Qaeda," he said. "Still, we feel and we see that those who believe in using violence ... are active; they are active in Baghdad; they are active in Mosul; they could be active in other areas."
Mr. Hussein said that to keep American forces in Iraq beyond the end of 2011 would require "a new agreement between Iraq and the United States."
That is a change from remarks by Mr. Barzani last year, suggesting that U.S. troops would be welcome in Kurdish territory if they could not stay in the rest of Iraq.
The Kurds, who suffered bitterly under Saddam's rule and have faced repression from neighboring Turkey, Iran and Syria, have long looked to Washington for protection.
Mr. Hussein said Iraqi Kurdish relations with Turkey had improved, noting that Turkey is now his region's largest trading partner.
However, he called for implementation of Article 140 of Iraq's constitution, which designates Kurdish majority areas such as Kirkuk, Mosul and the provinces of Nineveh and Diayala as "disputed territory" and calls for a process to work out the final borders for the Kurdish federal region.
Mr. Hussein criticized the government in Baghdad and, in particular, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, for ignoring the constitution's federalist provisions.
Despite the lack of a national accord, Iraqi Kurds have achieved a level of autonomy that at times approaches independence. For example, foreign passports are stamped at an airport in Irbil and the regional government has already signed about 20 contracts with foreign companies to develop oil and natural gas.