The president of Iraq's Kurdish region warned yesterday that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is drifting toward authoritarian rule, in the latest sign of the dangerous rift that has emerged between the Iraqi leader and his partners in the country's ruling coalition.
"One gets lost in absolute authority," said Massoud Barzani, the leader of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region in Iraq's north. "You become too authoritarian, you lose yourself."
In a wide-ranging interview, Mr. Barzani accused Mr. Maliki of working to purge Kurds from the Iraqi security forces, and he refused to rule out the possibility that Kurdistan could declare outright independence from Iraq, citing concerns about changes to the constitution.
"For sure, we will not accept an Iraq ruled by dictatorship," he said from a room with a view of the snow-topped Zagros mountains.
The Kurds, who are scattered across much of the Middle East, have long fought to establish their own state. Iraq's Kurdistan is the closest that the ethnic minority has come to achieving its nationalist dreams. But now, 18 years after the Kurds achieved nominal independence, the population once again is worried that Iraqi Arabs could turn on them.
Mr. Barzani said he hope that an upcoming visit by Mr. Maliki to Kurdistan and a series of working groups formed by the sides in November would go a long way toward finding solutions to the problems. His comments in the hourlong interview with the Los Angeles Times veered from direct attacks on the prime minister's record to the conciliatory. He denied rumors that efforts were underway by parties in the government to replace Mr. Maliki.
Mr. Barzani, dressed in an olive military shirt, baggy traditional Kurdish pantaloons, sash and cummerbund, and a tightly fit headdress, appeared to grapple with his turbulent relations with Mr. Maliki. He described how he had intervened to block an attempt to overthrow Mr. Maliki in the spring 2007 and how he had offered critical support last spring when a beleaguered Mr. Maliki ordered his forces into the southern city of Basra.
Mr. Barzani, a veteran guerrilla fighter against Saddam Hussein's regime, demanded a reason for what he felt was the prime minister's desertion of the Kurds.
"We want to know. It is also a surprise for us. In Arabic there is a saying that absolute authority could lead to an individual losing insight or (his) bearing. In other words, his character would be lost in absolute authority," Mr. Barzani said.