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Saturday, 11 August, 2001, 10:42 GMT 11:42 UK
Iraqi Kurds face uncertain future
What is next for Iraqi Kurds?
Iraqi Kurds - waiting for what the future holds
BBC journalist Hiwa Osman has just returned from the little-visited Kurdish region of northern Iraq. In the first of four features, he examines the internal political situation as well as the Iraqi Kurds' relations with their neighbours and their view of Western protection.

I was interviewing a Kurdish journalist on press freedoms under Kurdish rule when pictures of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein on BBC World TV flashed across the big screen dominating the lobby of a hotel in Arbil.

We can't afford to lose Western protection. If Saddam was here, we would not be able to have this conversation

Kurdish journalist

Saddam Hussein was asking the Kurds to "kick out the foreigners from their land" and reach an agreement with him.

I asked the journalist whether the Kurdish leadership should respond to Saddam Hussein's call or not. "No way," was his immediate reaction. "How can we trust him after what he did?"

Iraqi Kurds returned to their villages and rebuilt their homes
"I hope we do not have to leave our village again" - villager
Since the 1991 Gulf War and the establishment of a safe haven with Western protection, Iraqi Kurds have controlled two-thirds of their land.

During this decade, shifts in the regional political scene have reshaped the status of the Kurdish-controlled area of Iraq and modified Kurdish aspirations to establish a greater Kurdistan.

Dual administration

In 1992, after the Iraqi administration withdrew from the Kurdish region, the Iraqi Kurds elected a regional parliament and established their own government. Power was equally shared by the two main parties; the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

KDP Leader Mas'ud Barzani controlling Arbil
Mas'ud Barzani - "Our people have for so long fought for freedom, we won't deprive them of it"
The joint administration lasted until 1994 when the two parties began a protracted armed conflict that led to military interventions by Baghdad and neighboring countries.

In September 1998, a ceasefire was announced and the two parties signed an agreement in Washington. The Kurdish region has since been divided into two areas, with the KDP in Arbil and the PUK in Sulaymaniyah.

Click here to see map of the region

Kurdish strategy

"We need to foster civil society and invest in the people", said the PUK's Prime Minister, Barham Salih. "Should the situation changes in Baghdad, we have to provide an element of stability in Iraq."

We were not afraid of bullets. Why should we be afraid of words?

Jalal Talebani
The Kurds seem to be making genuine efforts to establish some form of civil society. Words like democracy, civil liberties and respect for human rights are heard in political, intellectual and social circles.

"Our people have for so long fought for freedom, we won't deprive them of it," was the KDP leader Mas'ud Barzani's reply when I asked him about his policy on openness.

Internet access and satellite dishes are readily available without restriction. Hundreds of newspapers and magazines in Kurdish and other languages are published in the main cities.

PUK leader Jalal Talabani controlling Sulaymaniyah
PUK leader Jalal Talabani "I'm an advocate of women's rights and individual freedoms"
I asked the PUK leader Jalal Talabani about a weekly newspaper, Hawlati, published in his area, which openly criticises his party. "We were not afraid of bullets. Why should we be afraid of words?" he said.

Turkoman, Assyrian and other minorities in the area also have their own political parties, newspapers and schools.

"We never had such freedom in the history of Iraq", said a Turkoman leader in Arbil. "This is a golden age for the Iraqi Turkomans."

Regional players

The landlocked Kurdish region's only access to the outside world is through Iran, Syria or Turkey.

These regional powers warily view the Kurdish region as a possible base for separation for their own Kurds. Turkey and Iran in particular view the region as a potential threat to their own national security and internal stability.

Refugees from government-controlled Kurdish areas
About 100,000 people were expelled from the Baghdad-controlled Kurdish city of Kirkuk
The Iraqi Kurdish leadership finds itself constantly needing to reassure its neighbours that their goal is not to establish a greater Kurdistan, but rather, a "more realistic option" - a relationship with Baghdad based on federalism.

To prove this, they had to prevent the Kurdish parties in the neighbouring countries from using Iraq as a base from which to launch attacks.

The Kurdish region is also a commercial transit area between the regional players and Iraq. Daily, hundreds of Turkish trucks haul beer, household goods and processed food into Iraq, and return with cheap Iraqi fuel.

A planned second road between Iraq and Turkey will bypass the Kurdish area and may threaten the weak Kurdish economy.

"The proposed road does not have any economic benefits," said the KDP's Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani. "It is merely for military purposes. We will oppose it."

What is next?

While enjoying an unprecedented era of self-rule, the Kurds fear the future. Iraqi troops are stationed but a few kilometres to the south of their areas.

The ever-present possibility of an Iraqi attack casts a pall over the political, social and economic spheres.

Baghdad's Arabisation campaign led thousands of Kurds to flee to the Kurdish-controlled areas

While there are US promises, Kurds have no clear assurances about the form and speed of any Western response should Baghdad attack.

It is this uncertainty coupled with the internal political division and the recent memories of chemical attacks and forced migration that leaves Kurds with a distinct unease about their future.

Before continuing our interview on Kurdish press freedom, the journalist succinctly expressed what I was to hear from Kurds of every walk of life. "We can't afford to lose Western protection. If Saddam was here, we would not be able to have this conversation".

here to return)

Photographs copyright of Hiwa Osman

See also:

23 Mar 99 | Monitoring
Med TV: 'Kurdistan in the sky'
08 Aug 01 | Middle East
Saddam renews no-fly zone warning
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