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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 February, 2004, 15:25 GMT
Kurds demand vote on independence
The BBC's Barbara Plett
By Barbara Plett
BBC correspondent in Baghdad

Kurds in Iraq
Kurds want to decide their own future in Iraq
Kurdish activists have collected 1.7 million signatures on a petition demanding a referendum on the future of northern Iraq's Kurdish region.

For the past decade, Kurds have ruled their own affairs, out of the reach of former strongman Saddam Hussein.

Their status in the new Iraq has been one of the most contentious issues for negotiators as they try to finalise an interim constitution.

The petition was handed to Iraqi and American officials.

The referendum campaign has been gaining momentum over the past month.

Memories of repression

Organisers are demanding a vote on whether the Kurdish zone in northern Iraq should become part of the country in a federal structure or declare independence.

Referendum advocates said Kurds had strong memories of repression under Arab-majority governments in Baghdad and did not want to give up the freedoms gained during more than a decade of autonomy under Western protection.

Few of us feel Iraqi any more - a younger generation has grown up in freedom, learning Kurdish, not Arabic. For the older generation, Iraq is mostly a bad nightmare
Extract from petition

Organisers said they have presented the petition to officials in the Iraqi Governing Council and the occupation authorities, and are waiting for a response.

Their grass-roots campaign has complicated an issue that has bedevilled negotiations on an interim Iraqi constitution.

Kurdish leaders have been pressing for self-government in a federal system but they have met opposition from Arabs, who fear this would be the first step to the break-up of Iraq.

Organisers of the referendum campaign say the movement is asking only for the right to be consulted - but popular sentiment is clearly in support of independence.

The BBC's Stephen Sackur
"The Kurdish leaders may be out of step with their people"


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