Iraq's Kurds hold political cards for al-Maliki

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq  — Kurdish lawmakers began Saturday to plot their course as Iraq's kingmakers with enough seats to secure a second term for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and press key demands, including a greater say over the oil riches in the country's north.
The Kurds, who control a semiautonomous northern enclave, emerged as the pivotal votes after al-Maliki's Shiite-led coalition received a major boost Friday from a powerful Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, who once opposed him. The support pushed al-Maliki close to a majority grip in the 325-seat parliament, but he needs help from other factions to break a nearly seven-month impasse.
A Sunni-backed coalition led by a former prime minister, Ayad Allawi, narrowly won March elections, yet without enough clout to control parliament and oust al-Maliki, leaving the country in political limbo.
Eventual Kurdish support for al-Maliki is anticipated. But first the Kurds are expected to lobby for their long list of issues, topped by a call for a referendum to decide control of the oil-rich Kirkuk region that is now under Baghdad's sway.
A senior Kurdish official said lawmakers from across the Kurds' three northern provinces gathered Saturday for their first strategy session, but no details were immediately available.