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Departing US envoy lauds Kurdish region

Calls it 'shining example' for rest of Iraq

IRBIL, Iraq -- Departing US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad expressed regret yesterday that he is leaving Iraq mired in violence, but he pointed to the country's relatively peaceful Kurdish region as a "shining example" of the way things should be.

The Afghan-born Khalilzad, who turned 56 yesterday, pledged to keep working for peace in Iraq if he is confirmed as US ambassador to the United Nations but said it would ultimately be up to Iraq's divided leaders to make hard compromises and unify the country.

He made his remarks as he made a farewell tour of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, speeding in convoys past Kurds who wore sequined costumes, picnicked on the side of the road, and flew kites to mark the second day of Nowruz, the Kurdish New Year.

The colorful scene contrasted sharply with the tight security and fears faced by Baghdad residents even in tasks as simple as going to the bakery.

"There has been too much pain and violence in many parts of Iraq, but thank God not in Kurdistan," Khalilzad said during an outdoor ceremony officially opening a $200 million water treatment plant in the regional capital of Irbil.

"The United States is committed to Iraq's success," he said. "But success requires Iraq and Iraqi leaders to make the compromises necessary to reduce the sources of violence."

Khalilzad credited the Kurdish leadership for making those compromises and working to promote unity after Saddam Hussein's ouster four years ago.

"I have felt the pain of the Iraqi people because of this difficult transition," he said later at a news conference. "I have been happy during this period that the Kurdish area has taken advantage of the opportunities presented by the change of regime."

He cautioned, however, that even this part of Iraq still has problems, urging the Kurds to focus on reducing corruption and strengthening the rule of law.

But while Kurdish leaders stressed their commitment to a federal Iraq, regional Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani signaled impatience with the national government in Baghdad, saying it was not living up to its commitments.

He said the Kurds deserved "a fair and just share of revenues in a timely manner" and he called for a referendum on the fate of the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk.

The Kurds want to annex the city into their region and the Iraqi constitution calls for the matter to be settled in a referendum.

"In Kirkuk, the situation has worsened and has not improved," Barzani said during the water treatment plant ceremony. "The people of Kirkuk and other disputed areas must be allowed to decide their fate."

"What was taken from us by force must be returned to us peacefully and democratically," he added. "Everyday that passes . . . makes the problem more difficult and more complicated. The time to solve the problem is now."

Kirkuk has witnessed a recent spate of violence and many have blamed insurgents who fled Baghdad ahead of the security crackdown that began Feb. 14.

Neighboring Turkey, which fears the independence aspirations of its own Kurd minority, strongly opposes the move to incorporate Kirkuk into Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.

Khalilzad said it is an internal matter but noted there had been delays in preparing for the referendum despite a constitutional agreement to hold the vote.

"What the effects of that delay will be is an issue," he said, but added that the matter should be settled "in a way that brings Iraqis together."

The US envoy ticked off a series of accomplishments during his 21-month tenure in Iraq: the drafting of a constitution, the participation of all communities in a second round of elections, and the creation of a national unity government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

He also praised Iraq's President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, for pushing for a law to promote reconciliation with members of Hussein's former Ba'ath Party.