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Iraq's Kurds Hold Political Cards For Al-Maliki

By Yahya Barzanji & Brian Murphy

04 October, 2010

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq — Kurdish lawmakers began Saturday to plot their course as Iraq's kingmakers with enough seats to secure a second term for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and press key demands, including a greater say over the oil riches in the country's north.

The Kurds, who control a semiautonomous northern enclave, emerged as the pivotal votes after al-Maliki's Shiite-led coalition received a major boost Friday from a powerful Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, who once opposed him. The support pushed al-Maliki close to a majority grip in the 325-seat parliament, but he needs help from other factions to break a nearly seven-month impasse.

A Sunni-backed coalition led by a former prime minister, Ayad Allawi, narrowly won March elections, yet without enough clout to control parliament and oust al-Maliki, leaving the country in political limbo.

Eventual Kurdish support for al-Maliki is anticipated. But first the Kurds are expected to lobby for their long list of issues, topped by a call for a referendum to decide control of the oil-rich Kirkuk region that is now under Baghdad's sway.

A senior Kurdish official said lawmakers from across the Kurds' three northern provinces gathered Saturday for a preliminary strategy session with a larger meeting planned for Sunday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to brief media.

Lateef Mustafa Amin, a Kurdish lawmaker, said the Kurds waited in the wings as al-Maliki and Allawi battled after the election. But now the Kurds "see themselves as part of the solution" to settle the political bind by opening talks with al-Maliki's bloc, he said.

The chain of events in the past days has left al-Maliki on the verge on holding onto power after the humbling election loss.

Even with Allawi's hopes fading, his party remained defiant and said they would not join in any coalition with al-Maliki. In a statement on the party website, spokesman Hayder al-Mulla said a Shiite-dominated government led by al-Maliki would violate the will of the voters who seek "a genuine partnership" of Iraq's groups.

Later, al-Maliki cast himself as the apparent victor and tried to reach out to Allawi's bloc.

"Boycotting does not serve anyone," he said in an interview on state-run Iraqiya television. "I ask them to return to the bargaining table."

Yet al-Maliki will be under pressure for big concessions in exchange for the support that has put close to his goal of staying in office. And it comes from two very different directions — the pro-Western Kurds and the staunchly anti-American al-Sadr, who once led one of the most formidable Shiite militias in Iraq.

A leading member of al-Sadr's movement said their demands include as many as six of the 34 Cabinet-level ministry posts, possibly the trade ministry and one post linked to security operations. Both outcomes would alarm Washington by giving al-Sadr's allies a role over vital foreign investment policies and efforts to build up Iraq's police and military as U.S. forces depart.

Al-Sadr has been in self-exile in Iran since 2007 and there are Western concerns about how much influence Tehran now carries over his decisions.

The Kurds, meanwhile, have been closely tied to the West. After the 1991 war to drive Iraq from Kuwait, American warplanes protected the Kurdish region — which allowed the Kurds to develop their economy and policies virtually independently from Saddam Hussein's control. Now, the Kurdish region is experiencing an economic boom that has raised living standards well above much of the rest of Iraq.

The Kurds also are trying to exert their influence beyond their semiautonomous zone.

They have demanded Iraq follow through with a constitutionally mandated referendum to decide the fate of Kirkuk, which is contested between Kurds, Sunni Arabs and a group with ethnic ties to Turkey. Kurds consider Kirkuk part of their ancestral territory and want a central voice in how the oil wealth is developed, but the referendum has been repeatedly postponed.

Kurds also are at odds with Baghdad over oil and gas deals signed without central government approval. Other demands include more central government funding for the Kurds' traditional fighting force, known as the peshmerga, and a greater political voice in the northern city of Mosul, Iraq's third-biggest urban area.

Although Kurds are overwhelmingly Sunni, they appear to favor a Shiite-led government in the belief that Sunni Arabs would be less willing to strike deals over Kirkuk and Mosul.

Mal Aqrawi, a political analyst based in the Kurdish city of Irbil, said there are some splits among Kurds over whether to back al-Maliki's bloc, but it appears that he will eventually get the Kurdish nod.

"The Kurds will back al-Maliki because he has the most power in parliament and it is the most logical choice," he said.

Murphy reported from Baghdad. Associated Press Writer Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad contributed to this report.