Kurd president says Iraq vote bill a 'conspiracy'

ARBIL - The president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region Massud Barzani has sharply criticised a provincial election bill as a "conspiracy," deepening a political rift over the oil-rich Kirkuk province.

"After the long talks we held it was clear for us that what happened on July 22 was a big conspiracy and very dangerous for the democratic and constitutional process of Iraq, in particular against the Kurds," Barzani said.

Barzani's comments late on Monday came as the Iraqi national parliament was meeting on Tuesday to try to resolve disputes over the controversial election bill, eagerly awaited by the United States.

The legislation aims to govern a provincial poll scheduled for October 1, but it has hit a major snag over how the council governing the multi-ethnic region of Kirkuk, claimed by both Kurds and Arabs, should be constituted.

Iraq's 275-member parliament on July 22 adopted a bill which would have allowed the provincial polls to go ahead.

But the draft faced strong opposition from major blocs in parliament -- mainly Kurds and some Shiite ministers -- storming out in protest and leaving only about 140 MPs to vote.

The vote forced the three-member presidency council, headed by President Jalal Talabani, himself a Kurd, to send the legislation back to MPs for reworking, where it remains stalled.

The United States, which is involved in trying to resolve the standoff, sees the provincial poll as a key step to healing the sectarianism violence that has torn the nation apart since the 2003 American-led invasion.

Since the bill came before the house last month, Kurds in Arbil have staged a series of angry protest demonstrations, while Arabs have countered with their own rallies in Baghdad and in the northern city of Hawija, near Kirkuk.

In the latest protest, several hundred people in a Sunni Arab neighbourhood of Baghdad took to the streets on Monday to protest at what they see as moves by Kurds to incorporate Kirkuk into the autonomous Kurdish region.

The legal wrangle centres on article 24 of the draft legislation that aims to evenly divide power in the regional council among Kirkuk's three main groups, Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen.

The Kurds, who currently constitute a majority, are vigorously opposed.

"Kurds are for the distribution of authority in Kirkuk but not equally dividing it," Barzani said. "The division should come from the election results."

Under the Iraqi constitution, a referendum had been due to be held by last year on longstanding Kurdish claims for Kirkuk and its oil wealth.

But in December, Kurdish leaders agreed to a six-month postponement of the vote at the recommendation of the United Nations, and it has yet to be held.

Arab and Turkmen residents are fearful they would be marginalised if the city were handed over to the Kurds, who make up the majority of the population.

Ethnic tension has dogged Kirkuk since the US-led invasion of 2003 that ousted now executed dictator Saddam Hussein.

In parliament on Tuesday, an AFP correspondent said that one proposal put forward by the United Nations calls for the election in Kirkuk to be delayed until December 2009, allowing polls in other provinces to go ahead.

The issue of redistributing political power in Kirkuk would then be postponed, and a special parliamentary commission to monitor demographic changes in the province established.

Under Saddam's regime, Kirkuk was the scene of a massive population upheaval with tens of thousands of Kurdish residents expelled to make way for Arab settlers.

Since 2003, Kurdish politicians have stoked tensions by encouraging Kurds to return.

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