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Iraq council close to choosing federalism
( 2004-01-06 08:29) (Agencies)

The Governing Council is close to agreeing on a federal system for Iraq and will defer until next year the explosive issue of whether to give greater autonomy to the northern Kurdish region, two council members said Monday.

Dividing Iraq into federal states along ethnic and religious lines is a sensitive matter for Iraqis as well as for others in the region who fear such separations will lead to the disintegration of the country. Turkey and Iran also worry about an increasingly autonomous Kurdistan because of their own Kurdish minorities.

In London, meanwhile, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said British forces would likely remain in Iraq for years to come. He said he could not give an "exact timescale" for their withdrawal but added "it is not going to be months. ... I can't say whether it is going to be 2006, 2007."

Three U.S. soldiers were wounded when a roadside bomb exploded near a U.S. military convoy west of Baghdad, and insurgents shot and wounded another soldier in an ambush northwest of the capital, the military said Monday. All four soldiers were wounded Sunday.

The violence underscored remarks by British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Sunday that the U.S.-led coalition must "get on top of the security situation" in Iraq as the country prepares for self-rule.

In Baghdad, members of the Iraqi Governing Council were focusing on how to structure the country in the post-Saddam Hussein era, including a proposal by the council's five Kurdish members to allow Kurdistan to exist as an autonomous region.

Dara Nor al-Din, a Kurdish member, said the council has not gone beyond agreeing on the principle of federalism in an "interim law," which will guide the country until the end of 2005.

Other details will have to be worked out when a constituent assembly is in place in mid-2005, he said. The assembly will then write a permanent constitution, which would be put to a national vote.

"The Kurds wanted to have a federal system based on two ethnic states. This is going to be difficult," said Muwaffak al-Rubaie, a Shiite member of the Governing Council. "We will agree on the principle of federalism but leave the details for later."

"The status in the Kurdish region will stay as it is now," Nor al-Din said, referring to the semiautonomous status that the Kurdish region enjoyed under U.S.-British air protection after the 1991 Gulf War. He said the status would remain "until we get to decide the fate of the cities where there is a Kurdish majority."

Kurds have a claim over oil-rich Kirkuk and other cities that were forcibly "Arabized" during the reign of Saddam, who moved large Arab populations into Kurdish areas to change the demography of the country. Kirkuk is not in the semiautonomous region.

Kurds thousands of whom were killed when Saddam's forces gassed Halabja in 1988 have long wanted a federal system that allows them some independence.

Nor al-Din said the discussions in the council bogged down when the members tried to discuss details of the relationship between a federal Kurdistan and the central government.

In Washington, State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said Monday that whether the Kurdish regions of Iraq remain semiautonomous as part of a newly sovereign Iraq will be decided by the Iraqi people.

"This is not a decision for the Bush administration. We've said all along that it's up to the Iraqi people to determine their political future," Ereli said.

"I would say, on the subject of the Kurds, that we have always supported and will continue to support Iraq's political unity and territorial integrity. The Kurds are members of the governing council and have themselves expressed a commitment to a unified Iraq."

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan will call on U.S. President Bush this month, seeking assurances that Kurds in Iraq will be kept in check in a postwar government.

A senior American diplomat said Monday that Turkey, a valued U.S. ally, wanted to ensure there was balance in Iraq so that Kurds do not have a disproportionate influence leading to Kurdistan independence.

In private talks with American officials, the Turks have emphasized they do not believe ethnicity should be a basis for the way Iraq is governed, the official said to reporters on condition of anonymity.

He said the Bush administration agreed Iraq should not be divided after the U.S.-led coalition authority leaves Baghdad.

Dan Senor, the spokesman for the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, said Sunday the details of a Nov. 15 agreement regarding the transfer of power to Iraqis are still being worked out. Under that deal, sovereignty is to be handed over to Iraqis by July 1.

The principle of federalism is included in the Nov. 15 agreement, he said. Senor added that Ambassador Paul L. Bremer, the U.S. chief administrator in Iraq, met the two main Kurdish leaders, Massoud Barazani and Jalal Talabani, over the weekend to discuss the issue.

In other developments Monday:

_ The U.S. military released three Iraqi employees of the Reuters news agency and an Iraqi cameraman working for NBC who were detained last week, a military official said. The U.S. military has not commented on the possibility that soldiers mistook the journalists for guerrillas.

_ In northern Iraq, a roadside bomb killed an Iraqi man and wounded three others outside the city of Kirkuk, said Iraqi police Lt. Abdel Salam Zangana. Such bombs are a favored weapon of Iraqi guerrillas, and Zangana said he believed the bomb was intended for U.S. soldiers but detonated early.

_ Overnight, two mortar shells exploded in the vicinity of the coalition headquarters in the southern city of Nasiriyah, causing no damage or injuries, the U.S. military said.

_ Gunmen wounded Mohammed al-Jawadi, a lawyer appointed by the U.S.-led coalition, and his son in the northern city of Mosul, witnesses said. Sources at the local hospital said al-Jawadi, the general prosecutor of a newly established court to fight corruption, was in critical condition, but his son's life was not in danger.

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