Deputy prime minister calls on Iran and U.S. to stop making Iraq a competition zone

Monday, January 29, 2007

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraq's deputy prime minister Sunday said Iran and the United States were using Iraq as a "zone of conflict and competition" and jeopardizing efforts to stabilize the country.

Barham Saleh, a Kurd who has ties with both Tehran and Washington, accused the two countries of stepping on Iraq's sovereignty as they jockeyed for advantage.

"Iraqi transition is burdened by many elements of interference in our domestic affairs," Saleh said.

He urged Iran and the United States to resolve their differences, at least where Iraq was concerned.

"The new Iraq is one that hopes to be at peace with itself and at peace with its neighbors," he said from a gilded chair in the ornate entrance hall of his Green Zone office compound.

"And that definitely requires noninterference in our affairs," he said, declaring that Iran and the United States should see Iraq's well-being and prosperity as a "point of consensus."

The United States and Iran, already deeply at odds over Tehran's nuclear program, find themselves in a growing and more public conflict over Iran's involvement in Iraq, where it is accused of training, arming and funding militants fighting U.S. occupation forces.

The Iranian government heatedly blasted Washington earlier this month after U.S. forces raided an Iranian government liaison office in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq and detained five Iranians. U.S. officials said the Iranians were members of a Revolutionary Guard faction that funds and arms insurgents in Iraq.

Top Kurdish officials and authorities in Baghdad complained that the U.S. raid was done without notification and said the Iranians must be freed, asserting they were in the country on legitimate business.

The detentions hit a nerve as Iraq's Shiite-dominated government faces the delicate task of trying to secure Baghdad with the help of American forces while maintaining ties with its neighbors, including U.S. rivals Iran and Syria.

The White House also has revealed that President Bush has authorized U.S. forces in Iraq to take whatever action necessary to counter Iranian agents who are deemed a threat.

Saleh, who served for 10 years as the Kurdistan Regional government representative to the United States, signaled Iraqi impatience with both Tehran and Washington.

His ally and fellow Kurd, President Jalal Talabani has been pressing efforts to encourage a dialogue between the two nations.

"I have to admit Iraq has become a zone of conflict and competition between various regional players and international players," Saleh said. "The tensions are there and undeniably there is a spillover effect that complicates Iraqi political and security transition."

"We are grateful to the United States for the effort on our behalf to overcome tyranny. But at the end of the day we are accountable to our own people, our own constituents who demand of us better security and better services," he said.

As for Iran, he said, good relations with the Shiite theocracy were important for Iraq given the countries sit side by side and that Iran gave shelter to many Iraqi dissidents during Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime and who now wield power.

But, he said, "The failure of this present political process in Iraq will mean chaos in Iraq and ultimately may well mean restoration of the status quo in the form of tyranny in one way or another."

On other topics, Saleh, who is chairman of the Cabinet economics committee, dismissed concerns that a proposed oil law would allow U.S. and other international oil companies too much influence over Iraq's most important resource.

He denied published reports that the proposal would provide for so-called product sharing agreements that would give international oil firms 70 percent of oil revenues to recover initial investment and subsequently allow foreign drillers 20 percent of the profits, tax free and without restrictions on repatriating profits.

"These reports ... about the terms of PSAs (Profit Sharing Agreements) ... are totally and absolutely wrong," he said, acknowledging that concessions would have to be made to attract much-needed investment from foreign oil companies. Details were still under negotiation.

"At the end of the day Iraqi national management will be there but we need partnership with the outside world as well for technology transfer and the flow of funds," he said.

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