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Iraqi PM, Kurdish President Meet Over Land, Oil Feud

Kurdish regional President Masud Barzani
SULAIMANIYA, Iraq (Reuters) -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Kurdish regional President Masud Barzani held a rare meeting on August 2 but agreed only to further talks to solve a row over land and oil seen as the greatest threat to Iraqi security.

The encounter was believed to be the first between them for many months, during which time Barzani has accused Maliki of acting like a tyrant and sidelining Iraq's Kurdish minority.

Maliki's Arab-led government has called oil deals the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has made independently with foreign firms illegal, and disputes KRG claims to territories it wants included in its largely autonomous northern enclave.

"Differences of opinion are very normal because we are building a state on the ruins of [Saddam Hussein's] dictatorship.... I think we largely agree, and if there are disputes, they are small," Maliki, seated one seat away from Barzani, told reporters.

There have been tense standoffs between Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers and Iraqi security forces on the borders of disputed territories. Washington, whose troops have intervened several times, has pushed for Kurd-Arab peace before its troops withdraw by 2012.

Dressed in his trademark red turban and baggy Kurdish trousers, Barzani said a high-level Kurdish delegation would visit Baghdad to "solve problems." It was not clear if he would he lead the group, but Maliki said he hoped so.

Apart from the formation of a joint Kurd-Arab committee to look at disputes, no concrete measures were announced.

At the heart of the problem is the fate of oil-producing Kirkuk, which Kurds consider their ancestral home and want to include within the borders of their Kurdish region, but the province's Arabs and Turkmen fear Kurdish hegemony.

Maliki's meeting with Barzani came on the heels of the results of last week's Kurdish parliamentary and presidential elections, which reconfirmed Barzani as president.

Hardline and fiery statements on Kurdish claims to disputed land characterised electioneering, and though Barzani's public rhetoric since has not softened, there is hope it might.

"There was flexibility and it will continue," he said.

Blood And Treasure

Last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates met Maliki and Barzani on a two-day visit to Iraq, in which he told them time was running out for the U.S. presence in Iraq and that all sides had sacrificed too much in blood and treasure to see security gains lost to political differences, an aide said.

The U.S. military believes the dispute between Kurds and Arabs is the number one driver of instability in the country, since the sectarian warfare that raged in Iraq in 2006 and 2007 has ebbed. Violence has fallen sharply in the last 18 months, but insurgents are still capable of conducting major attacks.

A car bomb in a market killed six people on August 2 in the western Anbar province, the latest in a string of attacks in the former Sunni Arab insurgent heartland. The blast came two days after a string of bombings at Baghdad Shi'ite mosques killed 31.

Anbar, Iraq's largest province, had been relatively quiet for months after tribal leaders in 2006 turned on Al-Qaeda and other Sunni Islamist militants who had dominated the region.

Maliki is due to remain in Kurdistan at least another day and visit the town of Halabja, the site of the gassing-to-death of about 5,000 Kurds by Saddam Hussein's forces in March 1988.

Saddam's government ruthlessly crushed Kurdish dissent and packed Kirkuk with Arabs to bolster his influence there.

An Iraqi court sentenced former Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz on August 2 to seven years in jail for his role in the forced displacement of Kurds from oil-prosperous northeastern Iraq, which includes Kirkuk, during Saddam's rule.

Lawyers said the term would be added to a previous sentence of 15 years for his role in the killing of traders for breaking state price controls in 1992.