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Iraq council seen near federalism pact

BAGHDAD -- The Governing Council is close to agreeing on a federal system for Iraq and will defer until next year the explosive issue of whether to give greater autonomy to the northern Kurdish region, two council members said yesterday.

Dividing Iraq into federal states along ethnic and religious lines is a sensitive matter for Iraqis as well as for others in the region who fear such separations will lead to the disintegration of the country. Turkey and Iran also worry about an increasingly autonomous Kurdistan because of their own Kurdish minorities.

In London, meanwhile, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said British forces would likely remain in Iraq for years to come. He said he could not give an "exact timescale" for their withdrawal but added "it is not going to be months. . . . I can't say whether it is going to be 2006, 2007."

Three US soldiers were wounded when a roadside bomb exploded near a US military convoy west of Baghdad, and insurgents shot and wounded another soldier in an ambush northwest of the capital, the military said yesterday. All four soldiers were wounded Sunday.

In Baghdad, members of the Iraqi Governing Council were focusing on how to structure the country in the post-Saddam Hussein era, including a proposal by the council's five Kurdish members to allow Kurdistan to exist as an autonomous region.

Dara Nor al-Din, a Kurdish member, said the council has not gone beyond agreeing on the principle of federalism in an "interim law," which will guide the country until the end of 2005.

Other details will have to be worked out when a constituent assembly is in place in mid-2005, he said. The assembly will then write a permanent constitution, which would be put to a national vote.

"The Kurds wanted to have a federal system based on two ethnic states. This is going to be difficult," said Muwaffak Rubaie, a Shi'ite member of the Governing Council. "We will agree on the principle of federalism but leave the details for later."

"The status in the Kurdish region will stay as it is now," Nor Din said, referring to the semiautonomous status that the Kurdish region enjoyed under US-British air protection after the 1991 Gulf War. He said the status would remain "until we get to decide the fate of the cities where there is a Kurdish majority."

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