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Iraqi President Offers Kurdish Assurances - 2004-06-10

Iraq's new interim president has pledged that the country's Kurdish minority will enjoy the same rights as Shiites and Sunnis once a new constitution is written. But at a news conference in Washington, he stopped short of saying the special status that the Kurdish region in northern Iraq has enjoyed for more than a decade will continue once the new document is written.

Kurdish groups are concerned that Iraq's majority Shiites could dictate the terms of a new constitution and strip what has been a largely autonomous region in the north of the protections minority Kurds have enjoyed since 1991.

The new constitution is expected to be drafted after elections next year.

Since after the first Gulf War, the Kurdish region has largely run its own civil affairs and had enjoyed the protection of U.S. and British aircraft under a no fly zone established after Saddam Hussein's forces crushed a Kurdish effort to secede.

However, interim Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawar says the new democratic Iraq will not be allowed to be dismembered, as he put it, by different groups. In response to a reporter's question, he offered no specific guarantees about what the first constitution of the post-Saddam era will contain, saying an interim charter agreed to in March, which does recognize Kurdish autonomy, is really only temporary.

"But it has no jurisdiction or authority to rule or dictate the drafting of the Iraqi permanent constitution," he said.

The two main Kurdish groups have written to President Bush threatening to disrupt Iraq's return to sovereignty if their concerns are not met. Leaders of Iraq's majority Shiite community have said such rights would go too far in accommodating a minority group.

So far, Iraq's Kurdish region has been among the most peaceful in the nation, but as the United States prepares to hand control of Iraq over to President al-Yawar and his United Nations-selected team of leaders June 30, increasing attention is being paid to the readiness of Iraqi forces to defend a country still battling insurgents.

President Bush emphasized that point as he wrapped up a summit of G8 leaders in the state of Georgia Thursday.

"They will be responsible. It's their responsibility. We are there to help. And yes, the main security will be provided by the Iraqi citizens," he said.

But U.S. and other forces will remain in the country to assist Iraqis and Iraq's president acknowledges his nation may not be up to the task of providing its own security for quite some time.

"It might take a few months, it might take up to a year," he added. "That depends on how fast we go and how things are on the ground."

At the G8 summit, President Bush said he is no longer counting on NATO countries to dispatch more troops to Iraq to help out with security as his administration had once hoped.