- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2003

WASHINGTON, March 14 (UPI) — French and Russian oil and gas contracts signed with the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq "will not be honored," Barhim Salih, a leading Iraqi Kurdish official, said in Washington Friday, just before a series of high-level meetings with Bush administration officials.

"A new Iraqi government should not honor any of these contracts, signed against the interests of the Iraqi people. The new Iraqi government should respect those who stood by us, and not those who stood beside the dictator," added Salih, who is prime minister in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan government that controls Iraq's eastern Kurdish area.

Russian and French oil corporations have each signed draft contracts with Iraq, to come into force only when the United Nations sanctions are lifted, for exploration, development and exploitation of the country's energy resources — which geologists believe may be the world's second largest after Saudi Arabia. The value of the draft contracts, if fully taken up, is estimated to have a potential of more than $20 billion.

Although there have been dark hints that French and Russian opposition to a second U.N. resolution in the Security Council could have economic consequences, this is the first clear threat from a leading opposition figure from inside Iraq that their oil contracts will not be honored.

"France and Russia should make a decision where they stand," Barhim Salih added, speaking to U.S. policy experts and reporters at the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations Friday. "We would rather see them stand with us. They cannot have it both ways."

Salih is expected to be one of the leading political figures in Iraq, along with the PUK's leader Jalal Talabani, after the fall of Iraq's current leader Saddam Hussein. The Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq, protected for a decade by British and U.S. warplanes enforcing a no-fly zone, has become an island of prosperity and nascent democratic ways.

While there is no guarantee that Salih will be elected to a high position in whatever new government emerges in Baghdad after Saddam, the Iraqi Kurds — both in the PUK area and those in the region controlled by the Kurdistan Democratic Party and its leader Masud Barzani — constitute the best-organized opposition in Iraq and are expected to play a decisive role.

Prime Minister Salih went on for talks with senior Bush administration officials on plans for rebuilding post-war Iraq and for creating political stability. His top priority was to dissuade the Bush administration from giving the Turkish military any role in the Kurdish region on northern Iraq.

"Turkish military involvement will invite other neighbors to intervene, like Syria and Iran. This would open Pandora's box. It would create havoc, and compromise the real mission, which is to install representative government and democracy in a stable Iraq, at peace with its neighbors."

He also said that the 70,000 Kurdish troops, mostly with light weapons, at his government's disposal would come under U.S. command in the event of war. And he confirmed intelligence reports that Iraqi troops had affixed explosives to the oil wells near Mosul and Kirkuk.

"Saddam wants to instigate an environmental catastrophe. This is his Armageddon," Salih said. "We are in touch with the Iraqi military, telling them to ignore orders to destroy the wells. We think very few of them will fight. Senior officers at border crossing have asked us to let them know when the moment (for attack) comes so they can escape."

Prime Minister Salih, 42, with a Ph. D in computer science from a British university, said he did "not expect to see Western-style democracy overnight, but some form of representative government will emerge, based on a federal system with wide measures of autonomy for the various regions."

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