Iraq PM must not obtain F-16s: Kurdistan chief

AFP , Monday 23 Apr 2012

Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani says oil giant ExxonMobil will defend Kurdistan after expressing fears over a US F-16 warplane deal with Iraqi PM Nuri al-Maliki's government

President of the Kurdistan region in Iraq Masoud Barzani, (Photo: Reuters).

Massud Barzani, the president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan, said he opposes the sale of F-16 warplanes to Iraq while Nuri al-Maliki is premier, as he fears they would be used against the region.

Barzani also said that he thinks that oil giant ExxonMobil, which has signed an oil exploration deal with Kurdistan against Baghdad's wishes, could provide significant protection for the region.

"The F-16 must not reach the hand of this man," Barzani told reporters at his residence near the Kurdistan region's capital Arbil on Sunday, referring to Maliki.

"We must either prevent him from having these weapons, or if he has them, he should not stay in his position," Barzani said.

Barzani alleged that Maliki had discussed using F-16s against Kurdistan during a meeting with military officers.

"During a military meeting, they talked about problems between Baghdad and Arbil," Barzani said.

"They told him, 'Sir, just give us the authority, and we would kick them out of Arbil,'" Barzani said. "And (Maliki) answered: 'Wait until the arrival of the F-16.'"

The United States has agreed to sell 36 F-16 jets to Baghdad in a multi-billion-dollar deal aimed at increasing the capabilities of Iraq's fledgling air force, a weak point in its national defences.

"When I went to the United States, they (Exxon) wanted to see me and I met the president of the company and other people and they said they are committed to (the contract) they signed with the Kurdistan region," Barzani said, referring to a visit to the US this month.

"If ExxonMobil came, it would be equal to 10 American military divisions," he said adding that "they will defend the area if their interests are there."

On October 18, Kurdish authorities signed a deal with ExxonMobil for it to explore six areas in Kurdistan, but Baghdad regards any contracts not signed with the central government as invalid.

There are long-running disagreements between Kurdistan and the central government over disputed territory and dozens of energy contracts Kurdistan has signed without the approval of Baghdad, but tensions have recently reached a new high.

Barzani accused Maliki of aiming to "kill the democratic process" after the head of Iraq's electoral commission was arrested for alleged corruption, and previously said Maliki was moving toward dictatorship.

Earlier this month, Kurdistan stopped oil exports over $1.5 billion owed to foreign oil companies working in the region that it says Baghdad has withheld.

The central government's top two oil officials responded by saying Arbil owed Baghdad more than $5 billion in promised exports, and was smuggling the oil it produced to Iran.

Kurdistan also hosted Iraq's Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi after he was accused of running a death squad and declined to hand him over to the central government.

The region then permitted the fugitive official to leave on a trip that first took him to Qatar, then Saudi Arabia, and now Turkey.

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