The consolidation of power by Nouri al-Maliki places the Kurds in the delicate position of acting as peacemakers between warring Shiite and Sunni Arab factions.

For the Kurds in the ancient city of Erbil, Iraq, the rewards of war are numerous and obvious. Construction cranes rise from the cityscape. Highway medians are green with shrubbery.

A glittering shopping mall with an indoor ice-skating rink stands as a totem of U.S.-style consumerism. The only blast walls in sight are those that protect the regional parliament, decorated by sunflowers painted in muted shades of yellow.

Among Iraqis, the Kurds benefited the most from the war, and now may have the most to lose if the political chaos that followed the departure of U.S. forces metastasises into civil war.

‘Yes, we are worried'

“Are we worried? Yes we are worried,” said Barham A. Salih, Prime Minister of the Kurdish regional government. “Our national interest as Kurds lies in a democratic, federal, peaceful Iraq. We still have a long way to go before we get there.”

The end of the U.S. military role here is an anxious turning point for the Kurds, who were protected by the United States for 20 years, beginning after the Persian Gulf War of 1991, with a humanitarian operation and no-fly zone that halted Saddam Hussein's killing machine.

Now, the consolidation of power by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki evokes painful memories of Kurdish suffering at the hands of a powerful Central government in Baghdad. It also places the Kurds in the delicate position of acting as peacemakers between the warring Shiite and Sunni Arab factions, a battle in which their own future is at stake.

“Every Kurd yearns for an independent homeland, no doubt,” Mr. Salih said. “But we have also accepted living as part of a democratic, peaceful, federal Iraq. If this hope vanishes, I don't think the Kurds will be willing to risk what we have.”

The current crisis, which politicians say has brought the country to the brink of civil war, erupted almost two weeks ago, just as the last U.S. troops were leaving. Mr. Al-Maliki's government issued an arrest warrant for Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi, the top Sunni politician, accusing him of running an assassination squad.

Mr. al-Hashimi fled north, to the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, to escape arrest. Mr. Al-Maliki, a Shiite, warned the Kurds that there would be “problems” if they did not turn over Mr. al-Hashimi.

‘Not part of the problem'

The Kurds, who have no intention of complying with Mr. al-Maliki's demand, were not happy about being dragged into the dispute between Sunnis and Shiites. “We are not part of the problem,” insisted Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish regional government.

But with the future of post-war Iraq hanging in the balance, they cannot avoid being part of the solution. American diplomats, whose influence is vastly diminished here since the U.S. military withdrawal, have called on a Kurdish leader, Jalal Talabani, who is President of Iraq, to convene a meeting of Iraq's leadership.

But so far there is no agreement even on where the meeting should be held: The Kurds say it should be in the north while Mr. al-Maliki is pushing for Baghdad.

Initiative teetering

A unity government formed last year at the initiative of the Kurds, which included meaningful roles for all three of Iraq's main factions, is now teetering. Mr. Al-Maliki has threatened to form a new government controlled by the Shiite majority that would effectively marginalise the Sunnis. To do so, he would need the support of the Kurds in Parliament, an unlikely prospect.

‘Dangerous step'

“This would be the most dangerous step,” Mr. Barzani said in an interview at his sprawling palace outside Erbil, surrounded by snow-tipped mountains that have served as the terrain for generations of guerrilla fighters. “It has to be a partnership between the Shias, the Sunnis and the Kurds. Anything contrary to that would be disastrous.”

Mr. Salih said a Shiite-Kurdish alliance that shut out the Sunnis would mean “the end of Iraq as we know it”.

Depriving the Sunnis, who dominated under Saddam Hussein's government, of a political voice, would likely revitalise the Sunni insurgency, which is already showing new signs of life. Four days after the U.S. withdrawal, coordinated bombings in Baghdad killed at least 63 people, the deadliest attack there in more than a year.

The Kurds have no great love for the Sunnis. Even though the Kurds are mostly Sunni Muslims themselves, it was the Sunni-Arab government of Saddam Hussein that was accused of committing genocide against the Kurds. But they would rather have the Sunni Arabs safely ensconced in a power-sharing government rather than risk renewed violence and instability.

Sanctuary for Sunnis

Kurdistan, long a bastion of tolerance and a haven for the aggrieved and oppressed of all stripes, has lately become a sanctuary for Sunnis. Mr. Al-Hashimi remains encamped at Talabani's guesthouse in the hills outside Sulaimaniya.

Sunni leaders from the Diyala province, a mixed region that has sought greater autonomy from the Central government, have also fled to Kurdistan after a crackdown by state security forces.

The Kurds have deep emotional ties to the U.S., and in many ways they subscribe to the vision of the pluralistic society the Americans tried to construct. “If you ask most Kurds, they will say that America's military left Iraq too soon,” says Mr. Salih. — New York Times News Service

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