The president of Iraq’s Kurdish region warned Monday that Kurdish leaders would resist efforts to scrap plans for a referendum on the fate of the multiethnic city of Kirkuk. His tough comments came a day after nearly a dozen political parties in Baghdad challenged Kurdish designs by calling for the central government to impose a solution.
Iraqi Kurdistan leader Massoud Barzani fired back at his Arab opponents who argued that Kirkuk -- a home to Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens -- is no longer subject to an article in the Iraqi Constitution calling for a general referendum on disputed territories to be held by the end of 2007.
“There is no turning back,” Barzani said in Irbil. “The referendum must be conducted in the next six months.”
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was traveling with President Bush in Saudi Arabia, traveled to Iraq early today to press for political reconciliation, officials said.
Meanwhile, a large fire erupted at an oil refinery in Shuaiba, west of Basra, early today. The cause of the fire, which sent large clouds of smoke into the air, was not immediately determined.
Some witnesses said the refinery, which produces oil for southern Iraq but not for export, was sabotaged. Other sources said a technical problem had caused the fire.
Barzani, the Kurdish leader, spoke at the reburial of 365 victims of the bloody 1988 campaign known as the Anfal, which the Iraqi government waged against its Kurdish population. The bodies were recovered from graves across northern and southern Iraq and returned to families in a reminder of how Kurds had suffered at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
“This is our past and we have the right to ask for guarantees in the new Iraq in order to avoid any genocide against the Kurdish people,” Barzani told mourners.
If the referendum is not held in the next six months, he said, the Kirkuk provincial government should be able to sponsor its own referendum. The Kurds, who dominate the provincial government, have long dreamed of making oil-rich Kirkuk part of their northern region and believe the area belongs to them historically.
The Kurds also insist that they have been robbed of areas in the northern provinces of Diyala and Nineveh through Hussein’s policy of “ethnic cleansing.” A referendum would settle the fate of all contested locations.
Barzani appeared to be reacting to the Arab political groups who read their communique Sunday opposing a referendum on Kirkuk’s fate.
The Arab statement also challenged the Kurds’ rights to sign oil-exploration contracts with foreign companies independent of Baghdad. The statement brought together Shiite and Sunni Arab parties from opposite ends of the political spectrum.
In Baghdad, Iraqi Vice President Tariq Hashimi said the 44-seat Sunni Arab bloc known as the Iraqi Accordance Front, or Tawafiq, might return to the government. Hashimi made his comments at a news conference after a visit from Shiite leader Abdelaziz Hakim. Tawafiq, which left the government in August, has previously hinted its ministers might return but they haven’t yet.
In west Baghdad, a high-ranking judge was assassinated by gunmen, police and hospital sources said. Judge Amer Jawdat Naib, who sat on the national appeals court, and his driver were killed by machine-gun fire after seven gunmen in two cars blocked their vehicle, police said. The shooting took place near two Iraqi army checkpoints.
Many Iraqi judges and lawyers have been assassinated since 2003 as armed groups have sought to destroy the country’s professional classes.
Seven Iraqi policemen were killed and four others wounded Monday when they entered a booby-trapped house in Abarat Behroz in Diyala province, police said. Last week, six American soldiers were killed when a booby-trapped house exploded in the Diyala town of Sinsil Tharia.
The U.S. Army announced Monday that it had killed 60 fighters and detained 193 militants during the hunt for Sunni militants in four northern Iraqi provinces. The military said it confiscated more than 4,000 pounds of explosives during the operation.
Sunni militants have flowed into northern Iraq since coming under pressure last year in Baghdad and the western province of Anbar. The northern region now accounts for about 50% of violence nationwide, according to U.S. figures.
Times staff writers Alexandra Zavis, Saif Hameed, Saif Rasheed and Usama Redha contributed to this report.