IRBIL, Iraq – The president of Iraq's self-rule Kurdish region demanded Wednesday that Shiite leaders agree on sharing power with their political opponents by September or else the Kurds could consider breaking away from Baghdad.
The warning by Kurdish President Massoud Barzani in an interview with The Associated Press underscores that Shiite domination in Iraq's government is reviving secession dreams that the now departed American military had tried to contain.
"What threatens the unity of Iraq is dictatorship and authoritarian rule," Barzani said in a 45-minute interview in his sprawling office outside of Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region he leads in northern Iraq. "If Iraq heads toward a democratic state, then there will be no trouble. But if Iraq heads toward a dictatorial state, then we will not be able to live with dictatorship."
He called it a "very dangerous political crisis in the country" and said the impasse must be broken by September, when voters in the Kurdish region may consider a referendum for a state independent of Iraq.
"They have to decide if they are willing to accept to live under a dictatorial regime or not," Barzani said. "They have to make that decision. It is their natural right."
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's media adviser, Ali al-Moussawi, declined immediate comment.
The specter of a divided Iraq has been discussed — and dismissed by many — for months. Barzani said Wednesday that he is still committed to negotiating a compromise before promoting secession. But he insisted it will be an option if the government logjam continues for much longer.
Barzani is the highest-ranking Iraqi official to disavow al-Maliki's government for sidelining its political opponents and, in some cases, persecuting them in what critics call an unabashed power grab. He stopped short of demanding that al-Maliki step down to ease the crisis. But he left little doubt that tensions between the central government in Baghdad and the three-province Kurdish region have reached a new high.
Iraq expert Ramzy Mardini, with the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, said Barzani's comments likely are aimed more at getting al-Maliki to bend to Kurds on some positions instead of containing a real threat to secede. He noted that Kurds are years away from having enough oil and gas infrastructure to produce the resources necessary to support an independent state.
Oil disputes — specifically Baghdad's blacklisting of ExxonMobil from bidding on new projects as punishment for plans to work in Kurdistan — have been at the heart of recent feuding between the two sides.
"A unified Iraq is at the center of U.S. policy and concerns every neighboring state," Mardini said. "Despite the real financial barriers, the very talk about Kurdish independence still makes everyone uneasy. It's unwise to underestimate the role Kurdish aspirations and fears play in their calculus regarding statehood."
The Kurdish region in Iraq's north is politically autonomous, although it does receive a share of the nation's $100 billion annual budget. It was created as a haven for the country's ethnic Kurds in the 1970s after years of fighting with the central government. Kurds account for up to 20 percent of Iraq's population; it is unknown how many of them live in the northern region since there has been no census taken for years.
Neighboring Turkey and Iran have been concerned that an independent and prosperous Iraqi Kurdistan might promote separatism among their own Kurdish minority populations. Iran's semiofficial Mehr news agency reported Wednesday that four troops from Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guards were killed in clashes with Kurdish rebels in western Iran the previous day.
During the early years of the Iraq war, the U.S. worked hard to ensure that the Kurds remained part of the Iraqi state, encouraging all parties to give the Kurds a major role in the government. Kurdish approval of the Iraqi constitution in 2005 was hailed as a major victory for U.S. policy.
Relations between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish region long have been strained, and Barzani has threatened previously to break off the region from Iraq.
But Barzani may feel more emboldened now that the U.S. troops have gone, and since talks last week in Ankara signaled a burgeoning partnership between the Kurdish region and neighboring Turkey.
On Wednesday, Barzani signaled he was impatient with requests by President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden for the Kurds to work with the al-Maliki government.
"They reiterated they support a federal, democratic, pluralistic, united Iraq. And I reassured them that certainly if Iraq is democratic, federal and pluralistic, it will be united," Barzani said. "Certainly, we have reservations about their policy and their attitude."
"We cannot sit and do nothing or try nothing to remedy the situation."
Barzani also said he "wholeheartedly" supports Sunni desires to create their own self-rule regions in Iraq. Sunni lawmakers, whose Iraqiya political coalition won the most seats in 2010 parliamentary elections but were outmaneuvered by al-Maliki for the right to form the government, bitterly complain they have no say in Iraq's power structure.
Sunni lawmaker Hamid al-Mutlaq said many of his constituents have been lukewarm about creating a self-rule Sunni region.
"But because of the injustice they are experiencing, due to the practices of the government security forces especially concerning arrests, marginalization and double standards, that makes them call for creating these regions," al-Mutlaq said.
Iraq's top Sunni official, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, is wanted on government terrorism charges that his supporters call trumped up and Barzani said Wednesday were politically motivated.
Lawmaker Ali al-Alak, a member of the State of Law political coalition that al-Maliki leads, said Kurdish secession should not be an option.
"The problems can't be resolved by issuing threats, but through dialogue," al-Alak said. "If one party tries to impose solutions on others, then this a dictatorship scenario. We are with unity of Iraq and we strongly reject dividing Iraq and its people."
Others feel it is al-Maliki who is dividing the Iraqi people.
Al-Maliki kept his job in 2010 only after corralling enough support from Kurdish lawmakers and the hardline followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Now, even Sadrist lawmakers are increasingly irritated with the government's long-standing dismissal of their concerns.
"The current political situation in Iraq is like a time bomb that could explode at any moment," said Sadrist lawmaker Bahaa al-Araji.
He said the political strain between al-Maliki and the Kurds could be the first domino to fall in a broken Iraq: "Baghdad has the same problems with other provinces," al-Araji said. "This will lead to dividing Iraq, and there will be no Iraq on the world map."
Associated Press Writers Yahya Barzanji in Irbil, Iraq, and Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad contributed to this report.