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U.S. makes political pledge to Kurds in Iraq

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Obama administration coaxed Kurdish leaders into accepting a new election law that gives Kurds a smaller percentage of seats in Iraq's next parliament by publicly committing to broker disputes between the Kurds and the Baghdad government and committing support for resolving the future of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to President Massoud Barzani of Iraq's Kurdistan region, told editors and reporters of The Washington Times on Tuesday that the White House commitment last week was historic.

It is new, yes, Mr. Hussein said. In our political history and in our relationship with the United States government, it is the first time we have had such a statement. There was always a discussion of these matters, but this is the first time in our political history that the White House gave such a statement.

The statement singled out the Kurds while congratulating Iraqis for finally passing a law allowing parliamentary elections to go forward in March.

There are still challenges facing Iraq, including disagreements between the government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government, the statement said.

It referred specifically to Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, which sets up procedures - including a referendum - to resolve the status of Kirkuk. It also agreed to help Iraq develop a census, a move favored by the Kurds, who think they are a majority in Kirkuk.

Kurds consider the city to be historically Kurdish. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, the government of Saddam Hussein forced out most of the Kurds and brought Arabs in to replace them. Since the U.S. toppled Saddam in 2003, Kurdish families have returned to Kirkuk and in some cases displaced those Arabs.

Fuad Hussein said there was a linkage between the White House statement and the Kurds accepting a smaller percentage of seats in the next parliament. The Kurdish bloc currently controls 58 of 275 seats, or about 21 percent. Under the new election law, the Kurds would control between 60 and 65 seats out of 325, or between 18.5 percent and 20 percent of the total.

Mr. Hussein said he and others were negotiating with legislators in Baghdad as well as U.S. officials for two weeks before the election law passed.

We did not think it was fair to give so little seats to the Kurds, he said. We were thinking about a linkage, accepting this for now, but reaching another target.

In the negotiations over the election law, the Kurds had leverage because Iraqi President Jalal Talabani is himself a Kurd and has the authority to veto legislation.

Mr. Hussein said that the Kurdish bloc would still be influential.

We can still be the kingmaker, he said. But at the same time, he acknowledged that Iraq's next prime minister would almost certainly be drawn from the parties representing the country's Shi'ite majority.