Last Updated: Tue Nov 02, 2010 20:17 pm (KSA) 17:17 pm (GMT)

Iraqi PM, Kurd leader meet over land, oil feud

Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki and Kurdish regional president Barzani held a rare meeting
Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki and Kurdish regional president Barzani held a rare meeting

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Kurdish regional president Masoud Barzani held a rare meeting on Sunday but agreed only to further talks to solve a row over land and oil seen as the greatest threat to Iraqi security.

The encounter was believed to be the first between them for many months, during which time Barzani has accused Maliki of acting like a tyrant and sidelining Iraq's Kurdish minority.

Maliki's Arab-led government has called oil deals the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has made independently with foreign firms illegal, and disputes KRG claims to territories it wants included in its largely autonomous northern enclave.

 I think we largely agree, and if there are disputes, they are small 
Iraqi PM uri al-Maliki

"Differences of opinion are very normal because we are building a state on the ruins of (Saddam Hussein's) dictatorship ... I think we largely agree, and if there are disputes, they are small," Maliki, seated one seat away from Barzani, told reporters.

 This visit is a very positive point and opens dialogue between the two (parties) in order to solve the problems between the central government and Kurdistan 
Kurdish MP Mahmoud Othman

There have been tense standoffs between Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers and Iraqi security forces on the borders of disputed territories. Washington, whose troops have intervened several times, has pushed for Kurd-Arab peace before its troops withdraw by 2012.

Dressed in his trademark red turban and baggy Kurdish trousers, Barzani said a high-level Kurdish delegation would visit Baghdad to "solve problems". It was not clear if he would he lead the group, but Maliki said he hoped so.

Apart from the formation of a joint Kurd-Arab committee to look at disputes, no concrete measures were announced.

At the heart of the problem is the fate of oil-producing Kirkuk, which Kurds consider their ancestral home and want to include within the borders of their Kurdish region, but the province's Arabs and Turkmen fear Kurdish hegemony.

Maliki's meeting with Barzani came on the heels of the results of last week's Kurdish parliamentary and presidential elections, which reconfirmed Barzani as president.

Hardline and fiery statements on Kurdish claims to disputed land characterized electioneering, and though Barzani's public rhetoric since has not softened, there is hope it might.

"There was flexibility and it will continue," he said.

"This visit is a very positive point and opens dialogue between the two (parties) in order to solve the problems between the central government and Kurdistan," senior Kurdish MP Mahmoud Othman said.

Attempts to settle disputes

The Kurdish region's President Massud Barzani

On a visit to Iraq last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged Arab and Kurdish leaders to settle their political differences before American troops leave Iraq.

Under a security accord signed between Baghdad and Washington in November, U.S. forces are due to withdraw by the end of 2011.

The U.S. military is closely monitoring the situation and has set up liaison offices with commanders of Kurdish militia and Baghdad government forces to try to prevent tensions from escalating, said the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno.

Maliki will also be seeking to shore up support from Kurdish parties in the run-up to next year's election, as his own grouping is unlikely to be able to win enough seats on its own to secure a majority in parliament.

Kurdish leaders, meanwhile, are likely to be keen to court allies in Baghdad as the United States, a close ally of Arbil, reduces its military presence in Iraq.

Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) have for decades dominated politics in Kurdistan, and their joint list secured 57 percent of the vote in the parliamentary poll.

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