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Iraq’s Shiite factions offer Kurds an ultimatum over presidency dispute

Iraq’s main political forces in Baghdad have laid down an ultimatum to rival Kurdish parties locked in a bitter dispute over who should be the next president.

The rift between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) is the latest hurdle threatening to derail the tortuous process of forming Iraq’s next government.

Under Iraq’s power-sharing agreement, the post of president is allocated to Kurdish parties, which have traditionally allowed the PUK to make the selection.

But increased tension between the two factions after a failed independence bid for the Kurdish region last year has led to the KDP wanting to nominate its own candidate.

The two main Shiite factions in Baghdad agreed last week to vote for the same Kurdish candidate. The vote was meant to take place in parliament on Tuesday but this was delayed until next week because it was not clear that one of the 31 candidates would have won the necessary two-thirds majority among MPs.

The Kurdish split over the presidential candidate is the first of its kind since 2005. The two parties usually manage to settle their differences in the autonomous Kurdistan region and act in Baghdad as a unified bloc in their negotiations with the Shiite and Sunni political forces.

Officially, the PUK has nominated the veteran Barham Saleh for the post while the KDP nominated Fouad Hussien, head of the presidential office in the Kurdistan region and personal secretary of the most prominent Kurdish leader, Massoud Barzani.

“There is a Kurdish division. Until now, the Kurdish (blocs) have not been able to agree on one candidate,” Sarwaa Abdulwahid, a female Kurdish candidate said.

“The competition between this number of candidates reduces the chances of any candidate winning and obtaining the required number of votes.”

The 210 votes needed to win the presidential post can only come from the two main Shiite alliances, which themselves have been competing to build the largest coalition and form the next government.

Reform coalition, controlled by the powerful cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, and the Iran-backed Al—Binna’a, which is headed by Hadi Al-Amiri, who also commands Badr Organization, the most prominent Shiite armed faction

Both Saleh and Hussein have been shuttling between Baghdad and the holy city of Najaf this week to persuade Shiite leaders to vote for them.

The leaders of the two alliances have refused to align with either of the candidates and told Kurdish leaders that if they can not agree on a single nominee, they have two alternatives, Shiite negotiators told Arab News.

The two candidates would compete in the first round of voting in parliament, and whoever wins will be baked by all the parties for the second round or the Shiite blocs will vote on a candidate of their own choosing regardless of the PUK and KDP’s position, negotiators said.

“We clearly told them (Kurds) that they both (PUK and KDP) have to agree on one candidate or choose one of the suggestions that we proposed,” a key Shiite negotiator told Arab News.

The United States and Iran, the main international players in Iraqi since the 2003 US-invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, have been deeply involved in the negotiations to form a government since the May election.

Brett McGurk, the US envoy to Iraq and Syria, and Gen. Qassim Sulaimani, commander of the Iranian Quds Force, helped persuade the leaders of the PUK to nominate Barham Saleh as president.

Both men traveled between Baghdad and the homes of the PUK and KDP leaders in the northern Kurdistan region to persuade the Kurds to unify their position and agree on a single candidate, Kurdish and Shiite negotiators told Arab News.

McGurk and Sulaimani are supporting Barham Saleh and are trying to persuade Barzani to give up his candidate and put aside his disputes with the PUK’s leaders until the negotiations to form a government are over.

It is not yet clear what the two envoys will offer Barzani, but he is expected to make demands over the disputed areas between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government, the administration of the oil city Kirkuk, Kurdistan’s border crossings and the export of oil, negotiators said.

“Both men (Sulaimani and McGurk) are trying to persuade Barzani to support Barham (Salih), in return they will offer him (Barazani) some guarantees that he will get what he wants,” a key Shiite negotiator told Arab News.

“They have not agree on anything yet, so we have no details of what Barzani wants exactly and what the Iranians and Americans have offered.

“The only confirmed thing is that we cannot waste more time and the Shiite blocs will vote for whom they believe is the best if Kurds could not agree on just one candidate by Oct. 3.”
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