ARBIL, Iraq, (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani on Friday to discuss control of oil resources in the autonomous region of Kurdistan.
Rice, visiting Iraq at the end of a Middle East tour, flew to northern Kurdish region after talks in Baghdad where she pressed Iraqi politicians to unite and rein in sectarian violence that threatens to tear the country apart.
A senior state department official said before Rice’s meeting with Barzani that she wanted to urge Kurdish leaders to work with Sunni and Shi’ite Arabs, particularly on the controversial issue of managing Iraq’s vast oil wealth.
The meeting with Barzani, the president of Kurdistan, came as the Iraqi government is drafting legislation to clarify how oil investment and revenues should be shared with a view to encouraging foreign investment to develop its vast resources.
“As for the revenues of oil … we (favour) a fair distribution of oil revenues all over Iraq,” Barzani said after the talks. Rice did not mention oil in their joint a news conference.
The issue of how powers are divided between Baghdad and the regions is at the heart of a bitter sectarian and ethnic dispute.
In a latest tension between Kurds and Arabs over oil, the Kurdish regional government last month raised the threat of secession if the Baghdad government did not drop claims to a say in development of oil resources in their northern districts.
“Kurds, like any other nation, they have the right to self-determination,” Barzani said after the meeting. But he stressed that the Kurdish parliament had opted for a “federal system” within a federal state of Iraq.
U.S. officials said Rice wanted to stress the importance of the Kurds finding a compromise on the draft Iraqi law governing its energy sector.
“Issues being discussed in Iraq right now … are so critical they cannot be jammed through, should not be jammed through, by a majority over a minority decision,” a senior U.S. State Department official said. “They need a consensus. And we look to the Kurds to act responsibly.”
Control of Iraq’s biggest northern oilfield in Kirkuk is one source of tension. The field lies outside the present Kurdish region but Kurds want a referendum to bring it into their area.
Barzani, one of the guerrilla leaders who wrenched the mountainous north from Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Gulf War, often refers to Kurdistan’s right to secede if the U.S.-backed project to establish a decentralised federal democracy fails.
Largely free of Baghdad’s control for 15 years and spared the violence that followed the U.S. invasion in 2003, the Kurds have prospered. But their territorial designs on Iraq’s northern oilfields around Kirkuk are a potential flashpoint for violence.
Kurdish leaders are mindful of their landlocked region’s dependence on its neighbours and the opposition to independence from their U.S. ally, as well as the outright hostility from Turkey, Iran and Syria, which have restless Kurdish minorities of their own.