Iraqi Kurds scorn US autonomy offer

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The Independent Online

Kurds in Iraq have rejected a US-backed plan for very limited autonomy in the north of the country, which has enjoyed a status close to independence for more than a decade. "It gave us even less than Saddam Hussein offered us in the past," a Kurdish leader said yesterday.

The Kurds, who have fought against control by Baghdad for most of the last 80 years, restated their determination to keep substantial control of their own affairs to Iraqi Arab political leaders during two days of talks last week in the Kurdish mountain headquarters at Salahudin in northern Iraq.

The US and senior Arab members of the interim Iraqi Governing Council have been pressing the Kurds to accept integration into a post-Saddam Iraq, with only local powers for the Kurdish authorities. Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, the top Kurdish leaders, told seven or eight council members, all former members of the Iraqi opposition, that this was wholly unrealistic.

The Kurds have said they are willing to turn over control of foreign policy, defence, fiscal policy and natural resources to a central government. But in practice they will retain most of the powers they won a dozen years ago when Saddam Hussein withdrew his armies from Kurdistan.

The Kurdish leaders are conscious that they are in a very strong position. They lead the third-largest Iraqi community, smaller in numbers than the Shia and the Sunni Arabs but well organised and armed. They are also the only Iraqi community which supports a long-term American occupation, and Iraqi Kurdistan is the only part of the country where US forces can move in relative safety.

Mr Barzani and Mr Talabani reminded the Arab parties and individuals opposed to Saddam Hussein that they had been committed since 1992 to a federal Iraq in which the Kurdish region would rule itself. The Kurds will not declare independence because they know that this would precipitate an invasion by Turkey and also be fiercely opposed by Iran and Syria.

The result of the meeting at Salahudin has been portrayed by some Kurdish leaders as a compromise, but in fact shows that they need to concede very little to the US or Iraqi Arab leaders. Since the dissolution of the Iraqi army by the US in May the Kurdish peshmerga have been the only significant Iraqi armed force.

A Kurdish leader said that the Kurds were prepared to negotiate over the future of Kirkuk, the oil province of the north, recaptured by the Kurds during the war last year. It is unlikely that they would ever give up Kirkuk, from which many of them were driven by Saddam Hussein.

The Kurds want their autonomy to be enshrined in Iraqi law as swiftly as possible, rather than being dependent on the outcome of future Iraqi elections.