Iraqi Arab rivals join in criticizing Kurds
Shi'ites, Sunnis say unity at stake
BAGHDAD - Iraqi Arab lawmakers from rival sects joined forces yesterday to criticize what they say is overreaching by the Kurds, alleging that the powerful, US-backed minority's go-it-alone style on oil and other major issues threatens national unity.
The 145 Shi'ite, Sunni, and other legislators signaled their opposition to Kurdish ambitions in the disputed northern city of Kirkuk and in negotiating deals with foreign oil companies without involving the central government.
"There must be a formula for maintaining the unity of Iraq and the distribution of its wealth," said secular lawmaker Osama al-Nijifi, reading from a declaration at a news conference in the capital. "Oil and gas are a national wealth, and we are concerned about those who want to go it alone when it comes to signing deals," he said.
The declaration, which was careful not to mention the Kurdish government by name, could create new tensions among Sunni Arab, Shi'ite, and Kurdish groups.
The Kurds are a key group within the governing coalition and have been Washington's most reliable allies in Iraq. Since the ouster of Saddam Hussein they have forged a close relationship with the majority Shi'ites.
But recent assertive acts by the Kurds, such as the refusal to fly the Iraqi national flag in the region, have irritated the Shi'ite-dominated government in Baghdad as well as Sunni Arabs.
Many see such gestures and the recent oil deals as a threat to the country's national unity. Complicating the situation is a major Shi'ite party's aggressive calls for a self-ruled region in southern Iraq modeled after the Kurdish one.
Kurdish regional officials declined to comment, saying they have not yet seen the declaration. But Mohamoud Othman, a prominent Kurdish lawmaker close to the leaders of the Kurdish region, called the statement "somehow negative and impulsive."
"The demands of the Kurdistan government regarding oil and Kirkuk do not contradict the Iraqi constitution," he told the Associated Press. "Such statements complicate problems instead of solving them."
At least one divisive issue may soon be resolved. Kurdistan's president, Massoud Barzani, said yesterday that he would fly the Iraqi flag once the parliament in Baghdad changes the Hussein-era design.
Nevertheless, yesterday's declaration from Shi'ites and Sunnis was made as Kurdish politicians are taking increasingly tough stands on the dispute over the fate of Kirkuk. Arab and Turkomen residents oppose the Kurdish claim to the city, 180 miles north of Baghdad.
Saleh al-Mutlaq, leader of parliament's second-largest Sunni Arab bloc, told the news conference that the declaration did not mean the creation of an ethnic Arab alliance opposed to Iraq's Kurdish minority. "We are working for the unity of the country and that takes precedence over anything else," he said.
The Kirkuk dispute was supposed to be resolved by the end of 2007 with a referendum among its inhabitants on whether it should remain ruled by Baghdad or be annexed to Kurdistan. The vote is now expected before the end of June.
The other major point of contention is oil.
With a proposed national oil and gas law bogged down in dispute between the Kurds and the government over who has the final say in managing oil and gas fields, the Kurds have signed 15 production-sharing contracts with 20 international oil companies, most of them obscure.
The Iraqi oil minister, Shi'ite Hussain al-Shahristani, considers these contracts illegal and has threatened to exclude and blacklist foreign oil companies who sign them from future opportunities in other parts of Iraq.
The ministry also has said it would stop all crude exports to South Korea if that nation proceeds with a deal between a state-owned consortium and the Kurdish government.
A spokesman for the Kurdish region, Jamal Abdullah, insisted that the contracts are legal.