Kurds name their price for putting Shia party in power

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The Independent Online

The Kurds are to stick to their demand for the oil city of Kirkuk and a degree of autonomy which is close to independence as negotiations begin to form the next Iraqi government.

The Kurds are to stick to their demand for the oil city of Kirkuk and a degree of autonomy which is close to independence as negotiations begin to form the next Iraqi government. The coalition of Shia parties, the United Iraqi Alliance, has 140 seats in the 275-member National Assembly but despite its electoral triumph other parties are waiting to see if it will hold together. The coalition was cobbled together out of disparate groups under the influence of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

"The coalition is not as strong as we thought - with all of the weight of Sistani, it didn't get an absolute majority," said a Kurdish politician who asked not to be named. Nevertheless Iraqi Shias, 60 per cent of the population but never previously in power, feel that their moment has come.

The Kurds are in a strong position to press their demands because they have 75 seats. In the past they were always the core of the opposition to Saddam Hussein and their leaders have far more political and administrative experience than returning Shia exiles. The Kurds are the only people to support the US occupation.

Kurdish leaders say they will refuse to compromise over Kirkuk or the autonomy of the three northern Kurdish provinces from which Saddam Hussein retreated in 1991. They will also reject applying Islamic law in Kurdish regions.

The newly elected assembly is expected to meet in the next two weeks. It will first elect a president and two vice presidents by a two thirds majority and they in turn will chose a prime minister. He will then put together a government which must be supported by a simple majority in the assembly.

The Kurds have been keen to institutionalise the gains they made on the ground during the war in 2003, recovering lands from which they had been driven out of in Kirkuk and Mosul provinces. They also want the right of return for Kurdish refugees. Shia and Sunni parties reject this in theory but there is not much they can do about it. The wrangling over the next two weeks will also be over ministerial posts and other jobs. There are not enough of these go around. If they are allocated to each party or religious and ethnic group, Iraq may get a weak government, such as that of Lebanon. Sunni and former Baathist officials in the security ministries are also frightened that the de-Baathification campaign, suspended for the moment, will be resumed.

"We will make conditions such as the right of return for refugees and for Kirkuk to belong to the Kurdistan region administratively," said the politician. "There will be some compromising but it will be less about the federal status of Kurdistan and more about who gets what ministerial post."

It is believed the post of president will be filled by Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two major Kurdish political parties. He is a vigorous and eloquent leader with his own political and military organisation who is likely to be much more important than Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawar, the US-appointed interim President.

The government must also establish a committee to draw up a new constitution. "It seems there is an agreement that the head of the constitution committee will be Fouad Massoum," the politician said, referring to the member of Mr Talabani's party who headed last year's National Assembly.

The Kurdish politician said a choice for the speaker, who is expected to be a Sunni Arab, could come tonight. Mr Yawar, whose party won five seats in the assembly, has been floated as a possibility, but "probably doesn't enjoy enough support", the politician said.

Wire news services reported today that the US-appointed interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, has refused to drop his bid to retain his post in the new transitional government. The post of prime minister "seems a matter for the Arabs to decide", the politician said.