- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Iraqi Kurds are committed to preserving their country’s borders despite their longtime yearning for an independent state, a leader of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region told The Washington Times.

“You can never say never, and every Kurd deep down yearns for independence,” said Barham Salih, prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). “But I live in that neighborhood. The reality of politics, the reality of the region has certain obligations on one as you make your decisions.

“I genuinely believe that a democratic, federal Iraq may well represent a very viable option for the Kurds of Iraq,” he said. “So far, we have proven that to be the case.”

Mr. Salih, who met Tuesday with Vice President Joseph R. Biden, said the Kurds have shown they are more concerned with Iraq’s stability and survival “than many of their Arab compatriots who are fighting it out over power in Baghdad.”

The Kurdish leader was referring to the political struggle between Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, and the Sunni-dominated bloc led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi.

“Should Iraq be dismembered, I can say that it won’t be the Kurds who will be the agents of division,” Mr. Salih said, vowing that the Kurds would not seek independence “so long as the constitution of Iraq is respected.”

Iraqi Kurds compose about one-fifth of the country’s 30.4 million people and are concentrated in its three northernmost, oil-rich provinces. They have enjoyed autonomy since the imposition of no-fly zones after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

After Saddam Hussein’s ouster, Kurdish politicians became power brokers in the central government as well, occupying the presidency and key ministries.

Questions about Iraq’s future as a democracy and a single state have abounded since President Obama’s announcement last month that the U.S. would withdraw all its troops by the end of the year.

Mr. Salih and other Kurdish leaders had supported a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq, seeing it as a check against the central government and Kurdistan’s meddlesome neighbors.

“Undeniably, we are concerned - and we must be concerned - about the new face [of Iraq] in the aftermarth of American redeployment from Iraq,” he said, noting that Iraqi Kurds had benefited from U.S. military engagement during the past two decades.

But Mr. Salish said he hopes to find a “silver lining” in the situation. “The Kurd in me obliges me to be an optimist,” he said.

Mr. Salih said the U.S. has a “range of policy tools” in the diplomatic, economic and cultural spheres to broaden its engagement with Iraq and with the KRG after the withdrawal of troops.

In July, the KRG achieved one of its longtime objectives: the opening of a U.S. Consulate in the region’s capital of Erbil. Mr. Salih said his priority now is to promote U.S. investment in the oil-rich region.

“America and the West in general have had a troubled relationship with the Muslim world,” he said.

“Kurdistan stands out as a Muslim community that is grateful to the United States, that appreciates what the Americans have done to give us a chance at building a functioning, free society, and this model should continue, should be enhanced, should be supported - not just for Kurdistan but for the rest of Iraq and for the rest of the region.”

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