WASHINGTON, Jan. 4 — The Bush administration has decided to let the Kurdish region remain semi-autonomous as part of a newly sovereign Iraq despite warnings from Iraq's neighbors and many Iraqis not to divide the country into ethnic states, American and Iraqi officials say.
The officials said their new position on the Kurdish area was effectively dictated by the Nov. 15 accord with Iraqi leaders that established June 30 as the target date for Iraqi self-rule. Such a rapid timetable, they said, has left no time to change the autonomy and unity of the Kurdish stronghold of the north, as many had originally wanted.
"Once we struck the Nov. 15 agreement, there was a realization that it was best not to touch too heavily on the status quo," said an administration official. "The big issue of federalism in the Kurdish context will have to wait for the Iraqis to resolve. For us to try to resolve it in a month or two is simply too much to attempt."
The issue of whether Iraq is to be divided into ethnic states in a federation-style government is of great significance both inside the country and throughout the Middle East, where fears are widespread that dividing Iraq along ethnic or sectarian lines could eventually break the country up and spread turmoil in the region.
Administration and Iraq officials insist that leaving the Kurdish autonomous region intact does not preclude Iraq's consolidating itself without ethnic states in the future when Iraq writes its own constitution. Indeed, the Bush administration plans to continue to press Iraq not to divide itself permanently along ethnic lines, officials say.
But after June 30, if all goes according to plan, the United States will be exerting such pressure not as an occupier but as a friendly outside power that happens to have 100,000 troops on the ground. Many experts fear that once a Kurdish government is formalized even temporarily, it will be hard to dislodge.
The original timetable for the transfer of sovereignty to Iraq called for self-rule to start in late 2004 or 2005 — after a constitution was written under American guidance. Under that timetable, American officials say, it would have been easier to influence a future government's makeup, not just on its federal structure but also on such matters as the role of Islamic law.
The new, earlier deadline, intended to ease Iraqi hostility to the occupation and to undermine support for continuing attacks on American troops, has forced the United States to scrap many of its other earlier plans for the future of Iraq.
Originally, for example, the United States had hoped to proceed with the privatization of state-owned businesses established by Saddam Hussein. That hope is now gone as well, American officials concede, in part because of security dangers and possible future legal challenges to any sell-off carried out by an occupying power.
Last summer, L. Paul Bremer III, the American administrator in Iraq, told an economic forum in Jordan that Iraq would soon start privatizing more than 40 government-owned companies making packaged foods, steel and other items. "Everybody knows we cannot wait until there is an elected government here to start economic reform," he said.
Now Mr. Bremer says repeatedly that such decisions must await Iraqi self-rule.
The precise terms of the future status of the Kurdish region in the transitional government, which is expected to last until the end of 2005, remain a matter of sharp dispute among members of the Iraqi Governing Council, the group handpicked by the American-led occupation that helps guide Iraq's future.
The five Kurdish members of the council are pressing their own draft of a planned temporary constitution — known as the "transitional law" — that would give the Kurdish area wide authority over security, taxation and especially revenues from its own oil fields, according to Iraqi and American officials. Their draft would call for the Kurdish area to be a part of Iraq, and cede at least some powers to Baghdad, most likely in areas like currency and security forces.
The Kurdish region has enjoyed basic autonomy since 1991, when the United States followed the first Persian Gulf war by establishing a no-flight zone there to prevent Mr. Hussein's military from attacking.
"The status quo, with substantial Kurdish autonomy, will to a certain degree remain in place in the transitional period," said an administration official. "That is the view across-the-board of the Iraqi Governing Council. But clearly the Kurds are trying to get more than that."
The Bush administration has many times stated its opposition to a permanent arrangement of ethnic states in Iraq, fearing that the country might eventually become another Lebanon, where power is parceled out according to religion.
While visiting the Kurdish region in September, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said that while he sympathized with Kurdish aspirations and understood that their leaders did not want to break away from Iraq, he was opposed to a separate Kurdish province or state as such.
"We would not wish to see a political system that is organized on ethnic lines," Mr. Powell said. "There are other ways to do it that would not essentially bring into the future the ethnic problems that have been there all along. They understand that, and we'll have different models to show them."
In Baghdad, a 10-member subcommittee of the Iraqi Governing Council is now wrestling with its own "models" of how to define the Kurdish area's powers. The committee is trying to meld its own draft with one put forward by the Kurds, officials said. The subcommittee chairman is Adnan Pachachi, a former Iraqi foreign minister who is a Sunni Muslim.
"There is a substantial agreement that the status quo in the Kurdish region would be maintained during the transitional period, with an important caveat," said Feisel Istrabadi, a law professor at DePauw University and senior legal adviser to Dr. Pachachi. "No one is conceding any ethnic or confessional grounds as the basis for any future federal state."
Mr. Istrabadi, who is in Baghdad helping Dr. Pachachi's committee draft the transitional law to take effect after June 30, said most Iraqis would oppose the establishment of ethnic states. He said such an arrangement would be inappropriate given that Iraq does not have the history of ethnic or sectarian strife that has led to partition of states in other parts of the world.
Some experts have suggested that Iraq should be divided into a Kurdish enclave in the north, a Sunni one in the center and a Shiite one in the south. But this idea has little support at the Iraqi Governing Council and none with the United States.
"You know what the largest Kurdish city in Iraq is?" asked Mr. Istrabadi. "It's Baghdad. It isn't like you could draw a line in Iraq and say the Kurds live here or the Assyrians, the Chaldeans, or the Turkomans or the Shiites or the Sunnis live there. In the supposedly Shiite south, there are a million Sunnis in Basra."
The Kurdish region is dominated by two feuding political parties that have been struggling to form a unified government in order to strengthen their hand in pushing for a federalist system that would give them broad autonomy into the future.
At present, Iraq is divided into 18 states, known as governorates, of which three are Kurdish in the mountainous area of the north. A permanently unified Kurdish state stirs worries especially in Turkey and Iran, where there are large and restive Kurdish minorities.