US embarrassed by Kurdish grab for oil-rich Kirkuk

As a minority group in Iraq, the Kurds have enjoyed disproportionate influence in the country's politics since the removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

IRAQ

But now their leverage appears to be declining as tensions rise with Iraqi Arabs, raising the spectre of another fissure alongside the sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shi'ites.

The Kurds, who are mostly Sunni but not Arab, have steadfastly backed the government, most recently helping to keep it afloat when Prime Minister Nouri Kamel al-Maliki lacked support from much of parliament.

With their political acumen, close ties to the Americans and technical competence at running government agencies, the Kurds cemented a position of enormous strength. This allowed them to all but dictate terms in Iraq's constitution that gave them considerable regional autonomy and some significant rights in oil development.

But now they are pursuing policies that are antagonising the other factions. The Kurds' efforts to seize control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and to gain a more advantageous division of national revenues are uniting most Sunnis and many Shi'ites with al-Maliki's government in opposition to the Kurdish demands.

The Kurds, with their pro-American outlook, were a natural ally. But now the US is increasingly placed in the uncomfortable position of choosing between the Kurds, whom they have long supported and protected, and the Iraqi Arabs, whose government the Americans helped create.

JAPAN

Until recently, mobile phone novels – composed on phone keypads by young women wielding dexterous thumbs and read by fans on their tiny screens – had been dismissed in Japan as a sub-genre unworthy of the country reputed to have given the world its first novel, The Tale Of Genji, a millennium ago.

Then last month, the year-end bestseller tally showed that mobile phone novels, republished in book form, have not only infiltrated the mainstream but have come to dominate it.

Of last year's 10 best-selling novels, five were originally mobile phone novels, mostly love stories written in the short sentences characteristic of text messaging but containing little of the plotting or character development found in traditional novels. What is more, the top three spots were occupied by first-time mobile phone novelists, touching off debates in the news media and blogosphere.

The mobile phone novel was born in 2000 after a home-page-making web site, Maho no i-rando, changed its software to allow users to upload works in progress and readers to comment, creating the serialised mobile phone novel.

NETHERLANDS

The Dutch interior minister wants police officials to stop using soft drugs when they are off-duty as it tarnishes the image of the force.

The use of some soft drugs is tolerated in the Netherlands and the sale of cannabis in small quantities for recreational use is permitted in government-regulated coffee shops.

"The minister does not want police officials to use soft drugs, such as cannabis, not even during their spare time. It does not fit with the presentation of the police to the public," a spokesman said.

RUSSIA

Russians visiting a health resort received a shock when a nurse used hydrogen peroxide instead of water to give them enemas.

In all, 17 tourists in the Caucasus spa town of Yessentuki had to be treated in hospital after the mix-up.

Sources at the sanatorium said the mistake was explained by water and hydrogen peroxide looking the same. Hydrogen peroxide, which can be used to bleach hair, is used as a disinfectant but should not be ingested.

MOVERS & SHAKERS

FAIROUZ

Legendary Lebanese singer Fairouz, below, performed to a sell-out crowd in the Syrian capital last week, defying politicians who criticised her for going to what they consider enemy territory.

The Arab diva, who burst on to the music scene on Damascus Radio in 1952, returned to the Syrian stage after an absence of two decades, and moved many of her fans in the Opera House audience to tears.

THE BEATLES

The Beatles' song 'Across The Universe' will be the first ever to be beamed directly into space this week, Nasa has said. Sir Paul McCartney said it was an "amazing" achievement, and John Lennon's widow Yoko Ono called it the "beginning of a new age".

The transmission of the song over the space agency's Deep Space Network tomorrow will mark the 40th anniversary of the day the band recorded the song.

The song will be aimed at the North Star, Polaris, 431 light years away from Earth, and it will travel across the universe at a speed of 186,000 miles per second, Nasa said.

In a message to the space agency, McCartney said: "Amazing! Well done, Nasa! Send my love to the aliens. All the best, Paul."

RAMBO

Police in Burma have given DVD hawkers strict orders not to stock the new Rambo movie, which features the Vietnam War veteran taking on the ruling military junta.

Despite the prohibition, pirated copies of the movie are widely available on the streets of the former capital, where it is fast becoming a talking point among a population eager to shake off 45 years of military rule.

"People are going crazy with the quote 'Live for nothing, die for something'," one Rangoon resident said, referring to the tagline of the fourth Rambo instalment.

"This movie could fuel the sentiment of Myanmar people to invite American troops to help save them from the junta," another resident said.

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