SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq -- With violence bloodying Iraq, Kurds in the peaceful north have been showing signs of breaking with Iraq, raising their own flag, and even hinting they could secede in a dispute over oil wealth -- moves that have alarmed Shi'ites and Sunnis.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to Kurdistan yesterday 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 Shi'ites are also pressing for their own autonomous region in the south, but even mere talk of federalism -- amid a wave of Shi'ite-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 yesterday 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 Shi'ite 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.
At a news conference with Rice in the Kurdish city of Irbil yesterday, Massoud Barzani, the president of the regional Kurdistan government , said the region, ``like any other nation, has the right to self-determination." However, he said he is committed to a ``federal, democratic, and pluralistic Iraq."
Rice told Barzani, ``I appreciate also your important participation in the process of national reconciliation."
While much of the rest of Iraq has been torn by violence, Kurdistan has remained largely at peace. Sunni and Shi'ite 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.
Barzani last month 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 Shi'ite 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.