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 Iraqi Kurdistan president hints at referendum, in swipe at Baghdad

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Iraqi Kurdistan president hints at referendum, in swipe at Baghdad ‎ 21.3.2012 

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Massoud Barzani, president of the autonomous northern Kurdistan region in Iraq, addresses the media after his meeting with Shiite leader Ammar al-Hakim of the influential Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council in Erbil, the Kurdish capital of Kurdistan region, on March 17, 2012. Photo: AFP/Safin Hamed
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March 21, 2012

ERBIL-Hewlęr, Kurdistan region 'Iraq', — The leader of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region delivered a sharp denunciation of the central government on Tuesday that included a veiled threat to reconsider relations with Baghdad.

Kurdish President Massoud Barzani has steadily ratcheted up his criticism of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government in recent weeks amid disputes over oil, land, budget funds and power-sharing in Baghdad.

Tuesday's speech marking the Kurdish new year Newroz holiday appeared to raise the stakes, with language suggesting he could seek a referendum of some kind on the Kurdish region's relations with Baghdad - although he stopped far short of breaking a taboo by making explicit reference to independence.

"It is time to say enough is enough," Barzani said in an official translation of his remarks on his website.

"The current status of affairs in unacceptable to us and I call on all Iraqi political leaders to urgently try and find a solution - otherwise we will return to our people and will decide on whatever course of action that our people deem appropriate."

The comments could be seen as a veiled code for seeking independence, since most Kurds say they would vote to secede from Iraq if given a chance.


The Kurdish region has flourished as the only part of Iraq to have avoided the extreme violence that followed the U.S.-British invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Barzani's government receives a fixed percentage of Iraq's oil export wealth and maintains its own security forces.

While Baghdad and the rest of Iraq still have electricity for just a few hours a day and have barely seen even the most basic reconstruction after decades of sanctions and war, the Kurdish region is enjoying a massive building boom. Barzani rules with a firm grip.

In his speech, Barzani repeated a litany of Kurdish complaints, some of them specifically directed against Maliki for consolidating his hold on power in Baghdad.

"There is an attempt to establish a one-million strong army whose loyalty is only to a single person," he said.

"Where in the world can the same person be the prime minister, the chief of staff of the armed forces, the minister of defence, the minister of interior, the chief of intelligence and the head of the national security council?" he said, referring to powerful posts that Maliki has yet to allocate under a power-sharing agreement.

He accused the central government of refusing to resolve a territorial dispute over the oil city of Kirkuk, which is outside the Kurdish region but regarded by Kurds as their historical homeland.

Funds due from the central government for Kurdish security forces have been "embezzled", Barzani said. The central government was opposing Kurdish oil deals to prevent the Kurds from reaching their own economic potential.

Iraq's Kurdish political parties have played the role of kingmaker in Baghdad since the fall of Saddam, and were instrumental in forming the coalition of that kept Maliki's Shi'ite religious parties in power after an inconclusive election in 2009.

The coalition is led by Maliki's Shi'ite alliance but also includes Kurds and Sunnis. It came under immediate strain when U.S. troops pulled out in December.

On the eve of the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops, Maliki's government issued an arrest warrant for the country's most senior Sunni Arab politician, Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, who immediately fled to the Kurdish region.

Barzani has refused to hand him over to Baghdad for trial, saying the criminal case has political implications that need to be resolved.

"Iraq is facing a serious crisis. We have tried our utmost to prevent Iraq from descending into a sectarian conflict and we have consistently avoided taking sides in this conflict," he said in Tuesday's speech.

"It is very unfortunate that a small number of people in Baghdad have imposed themselves and monopolized power."

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