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Kurdish Regional Parliament Convenes for First Time in Iraq

Jalal Talabani (l) the first Kurdish President of Iraq laughs with Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish region
Iraq's Kurdish regional parliament held its first session Saturday, four months after the country's general elections. The move marks a major step forward for the Kurdish region of Iraq, which is hoping to maintain a high degree of self-rule, as Iraq's interim government prepares to debate its new constitution.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani addressed the first session of the Kurdish parliament, and urged legislators to work together to unite the region in the face of sectarian violence.

Speaking in the parliament building in the regional capital, Erbil, Mr. Talabani, himself, a Kurd, also told lawmakers it was Kurds' "sacred task" to help draft a national constitution that would guarantee equality and freedom for all Iraqis.

The Kurdish region of Iraq has enjoyed virtual self-rule since 1991, when the United States imposed a "no fly zone" over the region to counter attacks on Kurds by Saddam Hussein's forces following the Gulf War.

Since the January elections, Kurdish leaders have risen to new national prominence. In addition to Mr. Talabani, eight Cabinet members in the interim government are Kurds. They also hold 75 seats in Iraq's 275-member National Assembly, making them the second largest voting block.

Most Kurdish leaders, like Adnan Mufi from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, want the new constitution based on federalism, which would allow the Kurds a continued high degree of autonomy.

"We can learn from European country," Mr. Mufi said. "They had a war - the second [world] war, and millions have been killed in this war, and now they are looking for new Europe. They are closing the borders, they are going to have one country. Now, they have one currency and there is no border. One identity. Why not in Iraq?"

On the same day as national elections, the three Kurdish provinces also held regional elections, resulting in the 111-member regional parliament that opened Saturday. Its opening marks the formal reunification of the two Kurdish regions divided during Saddam Hussein's rule.

Also attending the session was Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, who was recently named as regional president, although he has yet to be sworn in. He and Iraqi President Talabani are long-time rivals, and analysts say it was their parties' competing claims for power that helped delay the opening of the Kurdish parliament.