Kurdish leader demands control of Kirkuk

ERBIL (AFP) — The prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan raised fresh calls on Thursday for a referendum to decide the future of the country’s crucial oil hub of Kirkuk, warning that Kurdish patience had limits.

“Our people are committed to Iraq, but their patience is not unlimited. We as leaders are finding it difficult to convince our people as to why our demands are not being met,” Nichirvan Barzani told dignitaries in Erbil.

Iraq’s Kurds have long dreamed of independence from the Arab-led centre, but agreed to put demands on hold following the US-led invasion of March 2003, which they hoped would lead to improved relations between the regions.

Addressing guests at the opening of a new US-financed water treatment plant in the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, Barzani said the central government had yet to meet four key Kurdish demands.

“We demand a fair share of resources of the country, the issue of Kirkuk to be resolved democratically, freedom to share reconstruction funds and freedom to democracy and political rights,” he said.

“It is our natural right to share resources and we must have access to the budgetary process. The time is now to solve these problems,” he said.

Speaking about wealthy and volatile Kirkuk, which the Kurds want to incorporate into their autonomous northern region, Barzani stressed: “Whatever is taken by force should be returned peacefully and democratically.” Iraq’s constitution stipulates that the status of Kirkuk, which sits atop a third of the country’s mammoth oil wealth, be settled by referendum before the end of 2007, despite fears that this could fuel ethnic violence.

A fractious ethnic mix of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen live in Kirkuk and any referendum on its future is likely to provoke increased tensions.

On what he said would be his last visit to Iraqi Kurdistan, outgoing US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, heaped praise on the region and highlighted an Iraqi move towards greater decentralisation.

“There has been too much violence and pain in many parts of Iraq, but thank God not in Kurdistan,” he said.

“As you know Iraq is going through difficult transition. I am proud that the tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussein was overthrown by the US,” he said.

He said: “The United States is committed to support Iraq. We are partners in building a new Iraq. We are committed to success in Iraq, but success requires Iraqi leaders to make the right decisions and compromises to reduce violence.” He also stressed that Iraq was now changing from a centralised government rule to a “more decentralised” regional governments.

“The Kurdistan of Iraq has taken the advantage of opportunities,” he said.

“The region is attracting investments after its attractive investment laws. I urge you to encourage and strengthen the rule of law and ensure everyone is treated equally.” Before ending his speech he said: “This will be the last time I will be visiting you as ambassador. I will be leaving Iraq in a few days. Kurdistan is my blood. I will never forget Kurdistan and will continue to do whatever I can for it in whatever position I hold.” After opening the Irfaz Water Treatment Plant at Erbil, Khalilzad later went to meet Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish regional government.

The plant is one of many projects financed by the US in Kurdistan. The project cost is around $200 million.

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