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France's Kouchner, Kurdistan's Barzani Discuss Kirkuk Referendum


French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner have spent two days in Iraq on a previously unannounced visit to meet with political leaders in Baghdad and the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq. VOA's Suzanne Presto reports from the northern city of Irbil.

French Foreign Minister Kouchner praised the political stability and security in northern Iraq's Kurdish region during his visit to the area on Sunday.

Speaking at a news conference late that night alongside Kurdistan's President Massoud Barzani, Kouchner hailed the cooperative efforts between the regional government and Iraq's central government in Baghdad.

The French foreign minister noted that he met jointly with Kurdistan's President Barzani and Iraq's President Jalal Talabani last year. Both men are Kurds, a minority in Iraq, and they head rival Kurdish political parties.

Now, Kouchner says, the president of the region and the president of the nation are friends who can work with each other - and all other groups - to rebuild Iraq.

But a main source of contention between the Kurdish government and the central government continues to thrive - the status of the disputed territory of oil-rich Kirkuk province in northern Iraq.

Article 140 of Iraq's constitution says a referendum will decide the status of the city and province of Kirkuk and other towns in the region. That referendum was due to be held by the end of 2007. But, last December, lawmakers in the Kurdish region approved a six-month delay to give the United Nations a greater role in preparations.

Those six months will be up at the end of the June.

Much of Iraq's oil wealth lies beneath Kirkuk province. The city of Kirkuk was "Arabized" under Saddam Hussein, with Arabs being moved in to the region and Kurds driven out. The Kurds reasserted their rights to the area after U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam in 2003.

Ethnic Kurds want it to be part of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, arguing that, oil-resources aside, it is culturally and historically a Kurdish area. But, minority Arab and Turkmen residents fear marginalization and want Kirkuk to be under Baghdad's control.

Kurdistan's President Barzani told reporters that he discussed the issue of Kirkuk with his French guest.

France is a major political power, as well as a veto-wielding member of the United Nations Security Council. But when a reporter asked Kouchner for France's stance on the disputed territory, the foreign minister declined to directly answer the question.

He said the issue is related to Iraq's constitution and it is up to the people of Iraq to decide how to resolve the dispute.

Still, Mr. Barzani said the Kurdish government is working well with the central government and the United Nations on the issue of Kirkuk.

He stressed that the ultimate decision will be based on Iraqi law, and he said the Kurdish government will adhere to that final decision, whatever the outcome.

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