Iraq: Baghdad, Kurds agree to ease tensions

Iraq's central government and Kurdish leaders have reached a deal aimed at easing a military standoff that began last month, the country's president announced Thursday.

The agreement calls for both sides to eventually withdraw their military forces from disputed areas in Iraq's north, though there is no timetable for how soon the drawdown might take place.

Tensions have been rising in recent months between Baghdad and the Kurds, who have considerable autonomy in their northern self-rule region. The Kurds were angered by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's recent decision to form a new military command to oversee security forces bordering the Kurdish enclave.

The two governments last month rushed troops into disputed border regions to assert dominance following a clash between Iraqi police and Kurdish guards in a contested northern city. That raised fears that full-scale fighting could break out between the two sides.

Under the plan announced by President Jalal Talabani's office, local residents in the contested areas would oversee their own security. Committees will be set up to form the security forces according to the percentage of ethnic groups in each area, after which Iraqi and Kurdish military forces would start to pull back.

The agreement, which the statement said is supported by al-Maliki and the president of the Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani, also called on both sides to halt all media campaigns that would lead to more tension between the two parties. It did not say when the deal was cemented.

The deal appears to firm up a preliminary agreement announced by al-Maliki last week.

Ali al-Moussawi, a spokesman for al-Maliki, confirmed the accord but said it is too early to say how soon any troops might be pulled back from disputed areas.

"The real test will be the actual withdrawal of the deployed forces," he said. "I am optimistic and we hope that this crisis will end for good."

But Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish lawmaker in the federal parliament, expressed skepticism about the deal.

"The problem lies in the details," he said. "The whole thing depends on mutual trust and a sincere determination to reach a solution, but regrettably the trust between both sides is missing here."

Officials in the Kurdistan Regional Government could not be immediately reached for comment.

Also on Thursday, an Iraqi court handed the country's fugitive Sunni vice president a new death sentence after finding him guilty of possession, transportation and using silenced weapons. It is the fifth death sentence since trials against Tariq al-Hashemi began last spring, according to his defense team leader, Muayad Obeid al-Ezzi.

"The new verdict was expected and it is an episode in the long series of death sentences that were and will be issued against my client," al-Ezzi told The Associated Press in a phone interview.

The Shiite-led government has accused the vice president of playing a role in 150 attacks against security officials, security members and civilians from 2005 to 2011.

Al-Hashemi has dismissed the charges as a political vendetta pursued by his long-time rival, al-Maliki.

The vice president did not attend the trial. He left Iraq last year and is now living in neighboring Turkey. Turkish officials have refused Iraq's request to hand him over to face trial.

Two bombings, meanwhile, killed six on Thursday.

The bloodiest attack happened when a car bomb went off in a commercial street in western Baghdad, killing four people and wounding eight, police and medics said. In Anbar province, two soldiers were killed after another bomb exploded near their post in the city of Fallujah, 65 kilometers (40 miles) west of Baghdad.

All the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to talk to the media.

Violence has ebbed in Iraq, but insurgent attacks are still frequent.

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Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed reporting.

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