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World News

Iraqi Kurd leader blames Arabs for growing rift

ARBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - The president of Iraqi Kurdistan urged Arabs to give minority Kurds their political due on Thursday in a strongly worded letter highlighting growing ethnic strains in Iraq’s federal state.

“Unfortunately there are short-sighted chauvinists and extremists in some Arab circles, some inside the federal government,” Masoud Barzani, president of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq, wrote in the open letter.

Without naming names, Barzani condemned those who he said had destabilised ties between Kurds, who make up about a fifth of Iraq’s 28-million population, and majority Arabs “by provoking harmful ethnic feuds and inflaming the wounds of the past.”

Discord between Baghdad and Arbil, the autonomous Kurdish capital, has increased over the division of oil wealth, the proper role of Kurdish security forces and control of northern towns, especially the oil-rich, ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk.

Tensions have grown in recent months as Kurds and Arabs jockey for influence ahead of provincial elections this month.

After Saddam Hussein’s ouster in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Kurds made themselves partners in the fledgling Shi’ite-led government, winning newfound influence in Baghdad.

But with Shi’ite Arab Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s own position growing stronger and a Sunni Arab insurgency fading, Kurds now see their clout in Baghdad under threat.

‘BALANCED PARTNERSHIP’

Barzani has complained in the past that Maliki, who envisions a strong central state, has sidelined Kurds. In his letter, he stressed the “voluntary” nature of the Kurds’ union with Baghdad and called for a “truly balanced partnership.”

He referred to Kurdish suffering under Saddam, including the slaughter of villagers and gassing of civilians.

The frictions raise questions about Iraq’s future as Washington prepares to withdraw its 140,000 troops by 2011 and unseasoned Iraqi forces take charge of defending a fragile calm.

Kurd-Arab feuds have already hobbled hopes for swift passage of an oil law wanted to rebuild Iraq’s shattered economy.

Conflict nearly broke out last year between Kurdish and Iraqi forces over control of Khanaqin, a town along the “green line” dividing Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq.

In the upcoming provincial elections, no vote will be held in Kirkuk or the Kurdish provinces, but Kurds could lose influence in places such as the ethnically mixed, volatile city of Mosul, where many Sunni Arabs stayed away from earlier polls.

With tensions simmering late last year, Kurds and Arabs set up a special committee to deal with disputes.

“Arab solidarity with Kurds, in Iraq or in the region, is the best way to continue a peaceful coexistence,” Barzani said.

Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim; Writing by Missy Ryan; Editing by Katie Nguyen

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