Iraq's interim Governing Council has agreed to a federal structure for the country and to enshrine Kurdish self-rule in three northern provinces.
The US-appointed body will incorporate the pledges into "a fundamental law" that will precede national elections in late 2005, council member Judge Dara Nur al-Din said on Friday.
The fate of three more provinces over which the Kurds have claims would be decided later, he added.
Nur al-Din, a Kurdish independent who is helping to draft the country's law, said lawmakers had already decided on basic principles for Kurdish self-rule.
"In the 'fundamental law', Kurdistan will have the same legal status as it has now," he said, referring to the region that has enjoyed virtual autonomy since the end of the 1991 Gulf War.
He said the council has decided the law, to be adopted by 1 March, will formally recognise the principle of a federal Iraq, preserving the Kurds' legal right to autonomy over the long term.
"The Governing Council has agreed that federalism be included in the basic law... The Kurds will have the same rights they have now."
"The Governing Council has agreed that federalism be included in the basic law... The Kurds will have the same rights they have now"
Judge Dara Nur al-Din,
Iraqi Governing Council
The decision came after the 25-member council's five Kurdish members refused to budge on the issue during heated discussions recently.
"Some Governing Council members asked that details about federalism be delayed until after elections and the writing of a constitution, but we the Kurds refused it and we said everything must be worked out now," Nur al-Din said.
"When the constitution is written and elections are held, we will not agree to less than what is in the fundamental law and we may ask for more."
The current agreement would apply only to the provinces of Sulaimaniyah, Dohuk and Arbil.
The fate of highly contested Diyala, Nineveh and oil-rich Tamim provinces, where Saddam Hussein expelled Kurds in large numbers, will be delayed until 2005 and possibly 2006 after a national census is conducted.
But Nur al-Din made clear the Kurds would not settle for less than Tamim's main city, Kirkuk, as the future capital of a Kurdish autonomous zone.
The Governing Council's committee drafting the fundamental law had cut a deal on federalism and Kurdish autonomy about 10 days ago, Nur al-Din said.
Although Governing Council President Adnan Pachachi endorsed federalism earlier this week, he cautioned that it should not be guaranteed until the drafting of a constitution in 2005.
Powell says northern Iraq must
remain part of the country
But Nur al-Din dismissed Pachachi's speech as his "personal views", and emphasised the Governing Council had already agreed on federalism for the transitional period leading up to national elections.
The politician's comments came as Kurdish leaders Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani met four Arab Governing Council members on Iraq's future shape in the Kurdish resort of Salah al-Din.
A Kurdistan Democractic Party (KDP) spokesman said Barzani and Talabani had pressed demands for Kirkuk, but the Arab Governing Council members refused to budge before discussions broke up on Friday morning.
US overseer Paul Bremer has consulted the Kurdish leaders three times over the past week about the Kurds' territorial ambitions.
Speaking to Aljazeera, Bremer said Iraqi federalism is key to its future.
"We have said all along that we believe a federal structure is appropriate for Iraq."
"Iraqi federalism should not be ethnically based however it should take into consideration the special Kurdish status of the past 12 years."
"I think in six to eight weeks we shall find a solution."
US Secretary of State Colin Powell said on Tuesday that Kurdish territory in northern Iraq must remain part of the country when it returns to self-rule later this year.