British Prime Minister Tony Blair meets Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani

British Prime Minister Tony Blair meets Monday with the president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region for talks likely to focus on the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections. Masoud Barzani, a veteran Kurdish guerrilla leader, will be joined at the talks by Iraq's planning minister Barham Salih.

Salih told British Broadcasting Corp. radio he would be asking Blair for "sustained support as we go through the next stage of the political process in Iraq."

He acknowledged the violence plaguing Iraq, but denied the country had slipped into a sectarian civil war.

"There are tensions in Iraqi society, I don't deny that. We are emerging from 35 years of brutal dictatorship that pursued policies of ethnic and sectarian discrimination," Salih told the BBC. "But we are making progress. The terrorists are trying to deepen the polarization of Iraqi society and create a civil war scenario. It's incumbent on us in the Iraqi political leadership, and I hope that the international community will continue to be with us, to make sure that the terrorists will not win."

Britain has some 8,500 troops in Iraq, headquartered in the southern city of Basra, and has said it will not withdraw until Iraqi forces are capable of maintaining security themselves.

The Kurds, Washington's most reliable allies in Iraq, comprise 15 percent to 20 percent of Iraq's estimated 26 million people. Together with the Shiite majority, they had been oppressed for decades by the Sunni Arab minority.

Since the first Gulf War, the Kurds, under the protection of U.S. and British air patrols, have run large parts of territory they had historically populated in northern Iraq. Huge numbers of Kurds also live in southeastern Turkey, Syria and neighboring Iran. The minority people have never had a country of their own. I.L.