Kurds ready to talk with Maliki on Iraq government

BAGHDAD Sun Oct 3, 2010 2:46pm EDT

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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Kurdish lawmakers said they would begin their quest to play kingmaker in the formation of a new Iraqi government on Monday with a possible alliance with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki at the top of the agenda.

But the Kurds, whose support could give Maliki the seats he needs for a governing majority, said they would press demands that have often put them at odds with the central government in Baghdad, including the right to negotiate oilfield contracts.

The National Alliance (NA), a merger of major Shi'ite blocs, on Friday announced it would nominate the incumbent Maliki for a second term as prime minister, potentially a major breakthrough in a seven-month political impasse since a March election that failed to produce a clear winner.

While Maliki won support from two major factions of the Shi'ite alliance, his own State of Law bloc and the Sadrist movement of anti-U.S. cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, he still needs dozens of seats in the 325-member chamber to form a majority.

Iraq's semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region, with around 56 seats, is an obvious target for Maliki.

Fouad Masoum, a senior lawmaker and a member of the Kurdish negotiation team, said talks with Maliki would take priority.

"Tomorrow, the Kurdish bloc will hold a meeting to evaluate the situation to start talks with NA," Masoum said. "We believe the nomination of Maliki for PM was a positive step."

Negotiations with the Kurds could prolong the government formation process for weeks or months.

Among their demands are a government that includes Iraqiya, the Sunni-backed cross-sectarian alliance headed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, which won 91 seats in the March 7 election, two more than Maliki's coalition.

Allawi has warned that excluding his alliance could spark renewed bloodshed. Sunnis have felt marginalized in politics since the 2003 U.S. invasion that ousted Sunni Saddam Hussein.

Mohsin al-Saadoon, a senior Kurdish lawmaker, said the Kurds were leaning toward Maliki.

"We as a Kurdistan bloc, our first step in the talks to form a government will start with NA," Saadoon said. "There are positive signals that make us believe that we can reach a solution with Maliki regarding Kurdish demands."

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The Kurdish region has contentious relations with Baghdad, primarily over disputed land and oil. U.S. military officials fear the disagreements could be the spark of Iraq's next major conflict as sectarian violence ebbs and Washington prepares to pull out all U.S. forces by end-2011.

A row between the Kurds and the central government halted oil exports from the region last year, and they remain suspended. The regional government signed contracts with foreign oil companies for the development of fields in its territory that Baghdad deems illegal.

In August Kurdish lawmakers sent a list of 19 demands to the other winning political blocs, including the right to sign contracts for Kurdish oil. They also want Baghdad to finance the peshmerga, the Kurdish military.

"Certainly, these Kurdish demands will be the basis for our talks with other blocs to form the government," Masoum said.

A second term for Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurdish politician, is also on the agenda. But Masoum allowed that the presidency could be open for discussion if Iraqiya demanded it.

"Then we will negotiate," he said. "In the end, this issue will be sent to parliament and parliament will decide."

Late on Saturday Maliki urged all of the winning blocs to talk together to form a government.

"I want to make a forward step and not go backward," he said in an interview on state television. (Additional reporting by Mustafa Mahmoud in Kirkuk, editing by Jim Loney)

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