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February 9, 2005
Ballot Strength Leads Kurds to Press a Role as Deal Makers
By EDWARD WONG
AGHDAD, Iraq, Feb. 8 - Early election returns indicating that the Kurds could well be the power brokers in forming a new government have emboldened their leaders to press an ambitious agenda that could define the political battlegrounds in the new Iraq.
If current election returns hold, the relatively secular Kurds may prove a necessary coalition partner, putting them be in a position to limit any attempts by religious Shiites to install an Islamic government. Kurdish leaders said Tuesday that they were pushing for a Kurd to be president of Iraq. They are also seeking guarantees that they can maintain an autonomous region in the north, which could in turn heighten tensions with neighboring countries that are suspicious of any moves toward Kurdish independence.
American officials have long considered the Kurds to be their closest allies in Iraq, partly because the Kurds, mostly Sunni Muslims, are generally less religiously observant than Arabs here. As the country moves toward a new government and constitution, the Americans will likely find themselves depending on the Kurds to act as a check on conservative Islamic politicians.
The Kurds' confidence in their political muscle has grown tremendously since Monday, when it became apparent they are likely to have the second-largest bloc in the 275-seat constitutional assembly, and possibly the most cohesive and most courted.
Because forming a new government will require a two-thirds vote, and because it seems unlikely the main Shiite slate will get such a majority, the Kurds may become an essential coalition partner.
The electoral commission announced Monday that the main Kurdish coalition had 25 percent of the votes tallied so far, behind the leading Shiite slate of candidates but well ahead of other parties. About 4.6 million of an estimated 8 million votes have been counted.
The probable ethnic and sectarian breakdown of the votes still to be counted means the Kurds will likely get at least one-fifth of the assembly seats.
One possibility is that the leading Shiite slate, which has a strong Islamic component, could join the Kurds to form a government.
Other groups, like the secular Shiite slate led by Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, which by Monday had captured 13 percent of the votes, could court the Kurds to form a bloc with enough veto power to head off the Shiites.
That leaves the Kurds in a position to make political demands.
"It's truly a different ball game, and it's new to this part of the world," Barham Salih, the deputy prime minister and a top Kurdish official, said in his office inside the heavily fortified Green Zone. "There will be a lot of bargaining, a lot of back and forth, a lot of compromises."
Securing the post of president would give the Kurds enormous power in appointing key members of the new government, including the prime minister and cabinet. It would also bolster the standing of Kurds in the Middle East, where the governments of neighboring Turkey, Syria and Iran are fearful of any moves toward independence by Kurds in their own countries.
Those governments will also watch closely what autonomous powers the Kurds demand.
The Kurds have governed northern Iraq since the end of the first Persian Gulf war in 1991, when the Americans established a no-flight zone to protect the north from incursions by Saddam Hussein's military.
The ambitions of the Kurds will likely be opposed by politicians seeking to install a Sunni Arab as president in order to draw the Sunni Arabs, who once ruled Iraq, into the political process, despite their widespread boycott of the elections.
As the political jockeying intensified Tuesday, violence continued.
A suicide bomber detonated his explosives outside a recruiting station for Iraqi national guardsmen in central Baghdad, killing at least 21 people and wounding at least 27 more, according to American military and Iraqi officials.
All those killed were men signing up for the National Guard, a Defense Ministry official said.
Insurgents have killed at least 70 people in attacks on Iraqi security forces since Sunday, signaling that at least for now, the elections have done little to damp the guerrilla war being led by Sunni Arabs.
Armed men also killed two sons of Mithal al-Alusi, a candidate in the elections and a former associate of Ahmad Chalabi, the exile once favored by the Pentagon to rule Iraq. The sons, in their 20's, were gunned down Tuesday morning as they drove to a Baghdad market, a family member said.
Mr. Alusi formed his own political party, the Iraqi Nation Democrat Party, after he was ejected from Mr. Chalabi's party for visiting Israel last fall.
In Najaf, the office of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shiite cleric in Iraq, released a rare statement saying the ayatollah was leaving the writing of the permanent constitution to the national assembly.
But the ayatollah believes the constitution "should respect the Islamic cultural identity of the Iraqi people," the statement said.
Leading Shiite clerics said in interviews over the past week that they wanted Islam to be the guiding principle of the new constitution.
Of all the political groups, the Kurds, who make up one-fifth of the population, are the most organized, and their coalition has a much better chance of holding together in the national assembly than the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite religious slate assembled by Ayatollah Sistani.
Mr. Salih, the deputy prime minister, said the Kurdistan Alliance, the major Kurdish coalition, was pushing Jalal Talabani for president. Mr. Talabani is the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two main Kurdish parties in the north.
The other party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, has agreed to back Mr. Talabani's candidacy for president in exchange for the right of its leaders to govern the Kurdish region.
"I think he will be good for the job," Mr. Salih said of Mr. Talabani. "If he's ruled out because he's an ethnic Kurd, that's a terrible signal."
The Iraqi president and two vice presidents, collectively known as the presidency council, are to be elected from the ranks of the national assembly by a two-thirds vote. The council will then appoint the prime minister and the cabinet. The assembly has to approve a new government by a majority vote.
The assembly is charged with drafting the constitution by mid-August, holding a nationwide referendum on it within two months and preparing the country for full-term elections by year's end.
The early election results announced Monday indicated that the Shiite religious alliance had just over 50 percent of the vote, and Dr. Allawi's group 13 percent. Because of the widespread boycott by the Sunni Arabs, about a fifth of the population, the leading Sunni Arab party, led by Sheik Ghazi al-Yawar, the interim president, had less than 1 percent of the vote.
Kurdish leaders have expressed concern that Shiite religious parties could push for an Islamic state that would be heavily influenced by the clerics of Najaf.
Faraj al-Haideri, a senior official in the Kurdistan Democratic Party, said that whomever the Kurds support must "believe in a federal, multi-ethnic, democratic Iraq."
Other Kurdish officials echo the phrase. The key word for the Kurds is federal. Their leaders insist on the right to rule their region independently in all matters except for those related to foreign and monetary policy and national defense.
Mr. Salih said the Kurds also wanted to keep their formidable militia, the pesh merga, as an intact fighting force to guard the region. American officials have tried hard to ban militias, but with little success.
Kurdish leaders are also pushing for Kirkuk, a oil-rich northern city, to be folded into administration of the Kurdish region. Mr. Hussein forced Kurds to move out of the city en masse and resettled it with Arabs. Kurds are now moving back in, driving some Arabs out and demanding that the city be ruled by Kurds.
"We do not wait for anyone to give us our rights," Mr. Haideri said. "We take our rights."
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