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Rice urges Kurds to work for peace, unity with Arabs

U.S. official visits Iraq's autonomous region after surprise stopover in troubled Baghdad

Rice urges Kurds to work for peace, unity with Arabs

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met the leaders of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region yesterday, urging them to cooperate with Iraqi Arabs in building a peaceful and unified country.
Grateful for U.S. support in throwing off the yoke of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraq's Kurds have put their long-cherished dreams of independence on hold while the Baghdad government struggles to rebuild the war torn country.
But separatist tensions are never far from the surface, and fierce rows have recently erupted over the banning of Iraq's national flag in the north and the Kurdish government's determination to develop its own oil industry.
Rice dropped in on Kurdish regional president Massud Barzani in Arbil, his northern capital, as she headed back from an unannounced visit to the Iraqi capital Baghdad, which is in the grip of a brutal sectarian conflict.
"The Kurdish people will ... certainly be better served if Baghdad and its surrounding areas are stable and democratic," Rice told reporters at a joint press conference with Barzani.
"We had a very good discussion about the national reconciliation process and the vision of unified democratic Iraq that is stable, that is at peace and at peace with its neighbors," she said.
Washington fears a Kurdish declaration of independence would accelerate the possible disintegration of Iraq and knows it would be bound to anger regional ally Turkey, which has a restive Kurdish minority of its own.
But the sensitivity of the situation was on display at the press conference itself, where Rice and Barzani stood in front of U.S. and Kurdish flags, but not the Iraqi national flag, which the Kurdish leader has banned.
Meanwhile, officials in Baghdad confirmed that a Kurdish lawmaker in Iraq's national parliament had been kidnapped and murdered during Rice's visit.
"Kurdistan, as any other nation, has the right to self-determination," said Barzani, adding however that "the parliament of Kurdistan has adopted, within the framework of a democratic Iraq, the federal system."
The Iraqi parliament is debating a law which would allow other areas of Iraq to follow the Kurdish model and merge groups of provinces into self-governing regions under a federal central state.
Kurdish leaders regularly warn that they will secede if the rights of their region - a union of three Iraqi provinces which has been broadly autonomous since 1991 - are trampled on by the Arab-led Baghdad administration.
This threat reared its head again last week, when the Kurds announced the development of a new oil field, amid complaints from the central government that it should be consulted before deals are signed with foreign firms.
Barzani's oil minister furiously rejected federal oversight of oil contracts, and repeated the threat to declare independence.
Rice tried to calm the oil row during her visit.
"Our view... which I think most Iraqis agree with, is that oil needs to be a unifying factor and not one that would help to make the country less unified," she told reporters late Thursday as she left Baghdad.
Barzani met with Rice for 45 minutes and said afterwards: "We are for a fair distribution of oil revenues for the Iraqis," adding that the meeting was "constructive."

Updated : 2022-01-22 15:53 GMT+08:00