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Signs of Iraq's Kurds going their own way raise worries among Shiites and Sunnis

Signs of Iraq's Kurds going their own way raise worries among Shiites and Sunnis

With violence bloodying Iraq, Kurds in the peaceful north have been showing signs of going their own way, raising their own flag and even hinting they could secede in a dispute over oil wealth _ moves that have alarmed Shiites and Sunnis.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to Kurdistan on Friday underlined American worries that Kurds may be pushing too hard too soon for autonomy powers at a time of increasing sectarian tensions.
Kurds insist they are only using the autonomous powers given to them by the constitution passed last year that laid down a federal system in Iraq. But many of those powers _ particularly the division of oil wealth _ remain vague.
Some Shiites are also pressing for their own autonomous region in the south, but even mere talk of federalism _ amid a wave of Shiite-Sunni violence that has killed thousands this year _ has raised fears of the country falling apart.
"I warn those who back federal regions," a top Sunni Arab cleric, Harith al-Obeidi, said in his prayer sermon Friday in a Baghdad mosque. "They should think about security in Baghdad before claiming that federalism will provide security for the regions. ... Federalism in its current form will lead to the division of Iraq."
Sunnis in particular worry that a breakup of the country will create strong Shiite and Kurdish regions in the south and north _ where Iraq's oil wealth is concentrated _ and leave Sunnis in an impoverished central zone with no resources.
Backing for independence has always been strong in the autonomous zone in Iraq's northernmost three provinces, where the majority of the country's 5 million Kurds live. They have enjoyed self-rule since 1991.
While much of the rest of Iraq has been torn by violence, Kurdistan has remained largely at peace. Sunni and Shiite Arabs who want to enter Kurdistan must go through elaborate permit procedures _ still, many have flocked there seeking jobs in one of Iraq's few areas that see significant private investment.
Kurdistan's president, Massoud Barzani, sparked an outcry last month when he ordered all Iraqi flags removed from government buildings in the region and replaced with the Kurdistan flag _ a green, red and white tricolor with a yellow sun.
The Kurdish flags remain in place, and Barzani refuses to raise the Iraqi one _ a holdover from the rule of Saddam Hussein, who persecuted the minority Kurds and Iraq's Shiite majority _ until a new national flag is created representing all of the country's communities.
Kurdish oil deals have also raised concerns in Baghdad. The Kurdistan government signed a series of agreements with foreign companies to develop new oil fields this year. Over the summer, a Canadian-Turkish consortium drilled a test well in the area of Taq Taq, between Sulaimaniyah and Irbil.
Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani said the central government would review contracts signed separately by the Kurdistan government _ drawing a sharp warning from the region's prime minister, who said if Baghdad moves in on Kurdish deals it would fuel independence sentiment.
"The people of Kurdistan chose to be in a voluntary union with Iraq on the basis of the constitution," Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said in a statement issued Sept. 28. "If Baghdad ministers refuse to abide by that constitution, the people of Kurdistan reserve the right to reconsider our choice."
At a news conference with Rice in the Kurdish city of Irbil, Barzani underlined that Kurdistan, "like any other nation, has the right to self-determination." However, he said he is committed to a "federal, democratic and pluralistic Iraq."
For her part, Rice told Barzani, "I appreciate also your important participation in the process of national reconciliation."
Kurdish officials insisted they would move ahead with developing their oil sector, arguing the constitution gives them the right to do so.
"We will continue in exploring the oil resources in Kurdistan in accordance with articles in the constitution that allow each region to exploit its resources," Kamal Kirkoukli, deputy president of the Kurdistan parliament, told The Associated Press.
But the constitution remains vague on sharing oil wealth. It calls for a fair distribution, but also gives regions a hand in developing new oil fields. Parliament has been debating legislation on dividing oil wealth, but has yet to pass a law.
Kirkoukli and other Kurdish officials dismissed worries of the Kurds pressing a bid to secede.
"This is nothing new. ... They always accuse the Kurds that they want to break up Iraq," said Saadi Ahmed Pira, the Irbil chief of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the region's two main parties. "Today in the Iraqi government, there are strange voices of Arab chauvinism and they mirror the ideas of the previous Saddam government."
"The Kurds' decision not to withdraw from Iraq is not for the sake of the Sunnis," he said. "In the current political situation, the Kurds have chosen to live in a united federal Iraq."


Updated : 2021-04-19 06:12 GMT+08:00