By Nada Bakri
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 3, 2009
BAGHDAD -- In the first such meeting in a year between the two rivals, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Kurdish President Massoud Barzani pledged Sunday to resolve disputes over land and oil that have threatened to spill into fighting.
The conflict between the Iraqi government and the Kurdish autonomous region is seen as the most dangerous threat to the nation's stability, and U.S. officials have publicly urged both sides to resolve their disputes before most American combat troops complete their withdrawal from Iraq by August 2010.
"The challenges that face the political process require more meetings and cooperation between all Iraqi people," Maliki said Sunday at a news conference with Barzani and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, also a Kurd. "I am very optimistic after this meeting."
Barzani said a Kurdish delegation would visit Baghdad "to solve all the problems." Sunday's talks were held in a resort town just outside Sulaymaniyah, the Kurdish region's second-largest city.
The dispute between the two sides includes a disagreement over a hydrocarbon law to share oil revenue and manage oil reserves, some of the world's largest; demarcation of the border between the country's Kurdish and the Arab regions; and the fate of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city with mixed Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen ethnicities.
The Kurds want to expand their region to include Kirkuk, which produces a fifth of Iraq's oil, and other towns and villages along the border between Iraq's Arab and Kurdish regions, many of them predominantly Kurdish.
In the past, Barzani has vowed not to give up Kirkuk and demanded a census and a referendum on the city's fate, as laid out in the Iraqi constitution. But Barham Salih, the Iraqi deputy prime minister, suggested that the meetings might lessen the tension.
"It is very important to clear the air and to instill confidence about the situation between Baghdad and the region," Salih, a Kurd, was quoting as saying on the sidelines of the meeting. "Both sides reaffirmed their commitment within the constitution to solve all the problems."
Arab lawmakers welcomed the meeting, though there was some criticism in Baghdad. One lawmaker said that Barzani, not Maliki, should have traveled to visit the other. He contended that the trip represented a sign of weakness, hampering the government's negotiating stance.
On Sunday, a car bomb exploded in a busy market in Haditha, in the western, majority-Sunni province of Anbar, killing at least six people and wounding 21. On Friday, a string of attacks on Shiite mosques in Baghdad killed 29 people.
Haditha residents blamed the attack on U.S. soldiers who, they said, were patrolling in the town two hours before the bombing. U.S. troops withdrew from urban areas before a June 30 deadline and now carry out joint missions with the Iraqi army.
"The U.S. Army attracts bombs like garbage attracts rats," said Khalil Ahmad, who owns a store in the market where the bomb blew up. "Every time they enter the town, something bad happens."