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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

All this week on MORNING EDITION we've been describing key players in Iraq. These are names you hear on the news almost every day. So far we've focused on leaders among Sunni and Shiite Arabs. Today we will explore the two key leaders of another group - the Kurds, who dominate Iraq's north.

Our guide all week has been NPR's Anne Garrels, who has been in and out of Baghdad and the rest of Iraq since before the war. And Anne, let's talk about these two leaders, one by one - their biographies. The first is Jalal Talabani. He's a Kurd and he's also right now the president of Iraq. Who is he?

ANNE GARRELS: Well, he had been leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the groups fighting Saddam Hussein. It represents about half of the Kurds, and many of them were forced out of Kurdistan by Saddam Hussein.

INSKEEP: And then we have another one - Massoud Barzani. How is he different from Talabani?

GARRELS: Massoud Barzani comes from a long line of opponents of the central Iraqi government. Over time, Barzani and Talabani fought each other. They've now buried the hatchet and are working together. Barzani has stayed in Kurdistan as the head of Kurdistan. And Talabani has gone to Baghdad to be part of the central government as president.

INSKEEP: What do they want now?

GARRELS: Well, overall, what they would like is independence for Kurdistan. But at the moment, they're working to get as much autonomy as they possibly can. But the bottom line, and where the big fight is going to come, is over resources, because both Barzani and Talabani believe that Kirkuk - the oil rich area of Iraq, which is contested amongst Arab Iraqis and Kurdish Iraqis - they believe it should be the capital of Kurdistan. And they are very angry at the Iraq Study Group, because the Iraq Study Group basically said, there should be a strong central government, which is exactly what the Kurds don't want. The more local power they have, the more power they have to determine how they would use oil resources, and that would be for their own benefit.

INSKEEP: Well now, given all that, it is often said that if anybody is pro-American in Iraq, it is the Kurds. Are the Kurdish leaders in any position to do much substantively to help the United States, though?

GARRELS: Well, they have certainly helped the United States by being peaceful, by being part of the central government. But there's going to come a moment down the road, where the U.S. and the Kurds are going to have very different views, and that's over the fate of Kirkuk. The U.S. is trying to kick that can down the road. There is supposed to be a referendum on the fate of Kirkuk, this coming year. And on that, there is going to be a big split.

INSKEEP: Let's come back to the man we started with, the president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani. How has he handled his dual role? He's a Kurd, his people would like independence, but there he is, being the president of Iraq.

GARRELS: Well, in many ways, he and certain Shiites have worked very well together, because the Shiites want more control over oil resources in the south. But down the road, there's going to be real competition, because the Shiites are not going to be happy when the Kurds fight for Kirkuk, because Kirkuk is a huge percentage of current oil and future oil - much more so than the south.

INSKEEP: Can the Kurds go on indefinitely? Balancing all these different interests - wanting independence, but agreeing to be part of Iraq; serving the central government; being helpful to the United States, but also trying to improve their oil prospects and other prospects?

GARRELS: It's worked so far, but there's going to be a crunch point at a certain moment. And it has worked, in large part, because the central government is weak. But increasingly, you're going to have a Kurdish population who does not speak Arabic. The Kurds had to learn Arabic in school. Now, the new generation does not speak Arabic. And so, you're going to have a greater and greater split. You know, how it plays out. It's not going to be pretty.

INSKEEP: Well, NPR's Anne Garrels, it's been great talking with you all week.

GARRELS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And if you want to go to npr.org, you can find summaries of all the different leaders we've discussed this week: Shia-Arabs, Sunni-Arab, and Kurdish.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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