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Iraq Speaker Says 'Significant Progress' on Arab-Kurd Row

W460

Iraq's parliament speaker said Saturday that "significant progress" has been made on resolving an Arab-Kurd crisis, although a deployment of Kurdish forces in the country's north has raised the stakes.

Osama al-Nujaifi has been pushing to resolve a crisis between Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq that he has warned could lead to civil war.

Tensions are running high in areas of northern Iraq that the Kurdish region wants to incorporate over the strong objections of Baghdad. The threat of conflict was illustrated by the reported deployment of a large Kurdish force near the disputed northern city of Kirkuk on Saturday.

However, "significant progress" has been made after the two sides reached agreement on "the time and place to hold meetings," Nujaifi said in a statement.

"A technical and military meeting -- the first in this case -- will be held next Monday in the Iraqi ministry of defense in Baghdad," he said, terming it an "important development on the road to defusing the crisis."

A statement on Kurdistan president Massud Barzani's website meanwhile said he would not attend a meeting with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in the city of Najaf, scuppering an initiative by powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to bring the two together.

The current crisis is not a personal issue but rather "a problem of governance in Iraq, and focuses on a lack of commitment to the permanent constitution" and to agreements concluded by the federal government, the statement said.

A source in the Kurdistan presidency told AFP that a large number of Kurdish security forces, known as peshmerga, deployed on Saturday north of the city of Kirkuk, armed with heavy weapons and armored vehicles.

The peshmerga have orders from Barzani to attack Iraqi government forces from the Tigris Operations Command if they enter Kirkuk city, he said.

But the command's forces are mainly deployed in areas that have Arab or Turkmen majorities in the south and west of Kirkuk province, making a clash with the Kurdish forces north of the city unlikely.

Nujaifi has been holding talks since Wednesday with political leaders in Baghdad and the Kurdish region to contain the crisis.

The unresolved row over territory poses the biggest threat to Iraq's long-term stability, diplomats and officials say. Ties between the two sides are also marred by disputes over oil and power-sharing.

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