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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 January, 2004, 10:52 GMT
Kurdistan diary: Day Two
Alastair Leithead
By Alastair Leithead
BBC correspondent in northern Iraq

It was a smoky and busy bar with dozens of voices talking over each other - a couple of gin-fuelled songs springing from the far corner.

Barzan Wahab
Barzan says Kurds will settle for a federation

Like a cosy pub you would find the world over, but like no pub you would find in any other part of Iraq.

Kurdistan is different - there are trees unlike much of the flat desert land in the south, the traffic lights work, the people speak an entirely different language. And they like going to the pub.

I found Barzan Wahab holding court at one of the tables - he used to be a translator so spoke brilliant English.

"I have a theory," he said.

"What we Kurds need is for the Americans to find us an island where we can all move to and then live off our oil revenues. Somewhere with no neighbours."

He was joking, but his point was deadly serious - the Kurds want a homeland, where they can be protected from the repression that they have suffered over the centuries.

"Independence? Of course. That is our ideal," Barzan went on.

"But it is difficult. We will have to compromise, and a federation will do - as long as we have Kurdistan."

Token gestures

The politicians know they will do themselves more harm than good throwing "independence" into the melting pot which will hopefully soon be used to cast a new Iraq.

But "autonomy" is something they have had already, and something they are refusing to budge on.

Buying Western magazines at a Kirkuk market
Kurdish residents feel they have lost the opportunity to exploit oil

The Kurdish administrations, with two seats of power and two prime ministers, have joined forces to demand their plans for a federal Iraq be written into the Basic or Fundamental Law - the new temporary constitution.

But there is opposition from across Iraq and beyond - it is a hurdle the coalition will have to clear before the process can move on.

And what about all the oil that lies under Kirkuk? The 40% of Iraq's reserves must have something to do with it?

Barzan thinks not: "The oil doesn't matter as the Americans have it now. We will not see it again whoever is in control of Kirkuk."

'No reporters'

Trying to get into the oilfield to speak to a few people and get a few photos of the bright orange flumes that dot the horizon and light up the night sky, goes some way to proving his point.

Two burly and rude oil contractors at the entrance gate to the plant make it quite clear that journalists are not welcome.

Kirkuk oilfield
Kirkuk oilfield's new owners are keen to keep visitors out
The politicians have been quiet on oil, saying they do not want it, they just want their share of the national wealth.

Opponents inside Iraq and in Turkey and Syria suspect not only oil, but independence are the true ambitions.

Back in the bar, the drinkers make a fuss of their new visitors, handing us gifts - beads and Kurdish flag lapel badges.

"We like the British and the Americans," said one old man, "they saved us from Saddam and they save us from the Shias."

They may be right in the first bit, but as to the internal politics - the coalition insists that's being put firmly in the hands of "the Iraqi people."

But the Kurds might just see that as abandoning them once again.


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