ARBIL, Iraq, Dec 11 (Reuter) - Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani said Saturday that his semi-autonomous region has the right to self-determination and to the disputed city of Kirkuk, which is located above some of Iraq’s largest oil reserves.
The fate of Kirkuk is one of the main issues of contention between the Kurdish region and the central government in Baghdad, which are locked in disputes over land and some of the world’s richest oilfields.
Barzani told a congress of his Kurdistan Democratic Party in Arbil that Kurdistan’s right to Kirkuk was non-negotiable.
“The Kurdish identity of Kirkuk is not a matter of bargaining,” he said.
At the same event, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said he would meet the constitutional deadline to form Iraq’s new government. He was charged on November 25 with putting together a cabinet and had 30 days to deliver.
Iraq has been without a new government for more than nine months after a March election failed to produce a clear winner.
Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish factions squabbled for months over position and power before finally reaching a compromise last month that would include all the major political blocs in the next government.
Barzani’s region and Iraq’s central government have argued for years whether Arbil had the right to sign oil development contracts with foreign oil companies. Baghdad says Iraqi oil resources are under its jurisdiction and calls the Kurdish region’s contracts illegal.
The disagreement shut down oil exports from the region last year and they have yet to restart, although the oil ministers of both sides have said recently that exports should begin early next year.
Central to the territorial disputes is the fate of Kirkuk, which U.S. officials say may be sitting on 4 percent of the world’s reserves. The city’s population is a mix of Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and others.
Iraq recently postponed a national census that could determine what percentage of Kirkuk’s population is Kurdish, a key step toward resolving whether the city should be part of Kurdistan.
Tensions surrounding the census have escalated recently. Some Arab families have said they are being ordered to leave the city before the population count.
Barzani sought to dispel concerns about Kirkuk’s future.
“If there were fears that the Kurds would rule unilaterally in case Kirkuk is joined to Kurdistan, I would like to reassure everyone that we want to make Kirkuk an example of coexistence,” he said.
While previous party congresses had discussed and “confirmed the right to self-determination” for Kurdistan, Barzani said this year it would be a fundamental issue on the agenda.
Maliki’s pledge to name his new government by the constitutional deadline could be a sign of the difficulty of reaching agreement with rival political blocs on specific nominees for cabinet posts. He had previously said he would name a cabinet by mid-December.
“The government will see the light in this constitutional period and before the limit of 30 days,” Maliki told the KDP congress.
“I call upon all the blocs to accelerate submitting their nominees and not to stop long for minor issues,” he said.
Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim and Muhanad Mohammed; writing by Jim Loney