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U.S. Urges Kurds To Settle Disputes With Baghdad

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- The United States has urged the leaders of Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region to settle disputes over boundaries and oil revenues with Baghdad and to support Iraq's March 7 election.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she would raise the points when she meets Masud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish Regional Government, for talks that aim to prevent Kurdish-Arab tensions destabilizing Iraq.

Kurds fear that a nationalist Arab government in Baghdad might try to curtail the virtual independence they have enjoyed since shortly after the 1991 Gulf War once U.S. forces withdraw from Iraq.

U.S. President Barrack Obama aims to end combat operations in Iraq by August 31, 2010, before a full pullout by the end of 2011.

Clinton told State Department officials she would urge Barzani when they met later today to "work toward a peaceful resolution of some of the disputed boundaries, particularly around Kirkuk, [and] to support the elections."

While stressing U.S. support for Kurdish security, she said, "We do expect that the Kurdish leadership will take an important role in trying to stabilize Iraq, trying to work with the Sunni and Shia leadership for the betterment of the entire country."

She specifically called for settling boundary disputes over Kirkuk and its surrounding province, which produces a fifth of Iraq's oil, and over revenue-sharing from hydrocarbon production.

Iraq's central government and semi-autonomous Kurdistan have since 2004 engaged in a long-running dispute over Iraq's vast oil and gas assets and the growing revenue generated by them. The discord threatens to aggravate the political strains that already exist between autonomy-minded Kurds and Shi'ites.

"Working out the oil revenue law, for example, is something that is very important to all Iraqis and it will benefit all Iraqis if it can be finalized," Clinton said.