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Last Updated: Sunday, 29 February 2004, 09:04 GMT
Iraqi Kurds demand a voice
Barbara Plett
By Barbara Plett
BBC correspondent in Baghdad

The Iraqi Kurds are putting the world on notice: they're demanding to be heard.

Irbil market
Irbil market: Ordinary Kurds are making louder calls for independence than their political leaders
This week activists brought a petition to the authorities in Baghdad. They say 1.7 million people have signed up, asking for a referendum on whether to stay within a united Iraq, or to form an independent Kurdistan.

"The Referendum movement has one goal, to allow the people of Iraqi Kurdistan to decide their future themselves," says a statement announcing the campaign.

Kurds weren't consulted when Britain forcibly attached Kurdish areas to Iraq after the first World War - and they don't want history to repeat itself.

Tragic history

"It's quite important for us as a people living in Iraq who are different from the Arabs to recreate a new relationship between Kurdistan and the central government," says Asos Hardi, editor of Hawlati, a Kurdish weekly published in the Northern city of Suleimaniya.

"Because as you know, during the last 80 years or so, since the establishment of the Iraqi state, our experience has been a very tragic one."

The Kurdish experience of Arab majority governments is ethnic cleansing and genocide, especially under Saddam Hussein.

I would like to see my country free, to have my own government, my own flag
Osman Kadar
Iraqi Kurd
That changed more than a decade ago when the Kurds achieved de facto autonomy in the north under Western protection. They don't want to give that up, and many want more.

There's barely a seat free at a popular café in downtown Suleimaniya. Writers and intellectuals have gathered to play dominoes and talk of the future. They feel the time has come to fulfil an old dream.

"I would like to see my country free, to have my own government, my own flag," says Osman Kadar. "Kurdistan should be different from Iraq, a separate country."

"This is the century of freedoms, this is our century, this is the Kurds' century," says artist Hamal Ekhan. "It will take time - maybe five, six, 10 years - but in the end we will be independent."

'Unrealistic desires'

The desire for independence is genuine, but unrealistic.

So says Barham Saleh, a Kurdish regional prime minister. "The aim now is a federal structure with Iraq that preserves and expands autonomy in the north," he says.

We think that the Kurdistan people would like to have independence. But their leaders have another agenda and that is our dilemma
Halkaut Abdullah
Independence campaigner
"We should not fool our people, and we should not lead our people down the road of unrealized expectations.

"We have to say this is what we have, this is what is workable. I know many people will not be happy, will be cursing history and so on, but (we must) commit to something tangible, something reasonable, get self-government within a decent Iraq."

There's another reason for Mr Saleh's pragmatism. He knows any unilateral move to independence would be opposed by the Iraqi Arabs and the Americans.

It would also risk military intervention by Turkey and Iran, countries with large Kurdish minorities of their own.

Leadership challenge?

So is the referendum campaign a challenge to Kurdish leaders? According to Asos Hardi it is, to a point, but it's also a tool in their hands.

"That's the big card they are using against the Arabs and coalition forces," he says. "I mean they will say if you don't accept our demands, you know that the majority of the people will vote for independence, and what will you do then, so it's better to accept our demands now."

Many Kurds say they're prepared to put their national dreams on hold and accept a federal structure for now, but only if they get more powers than they have already.

If they get less, the demand for independence will grow.

At least, that seems to be the message of those who've signed the referendum petition.

"Some of them have been signing in blood, they have written beside their name, we would like to have independence," says Halkaut Abdullah, one of the campaign organisers.

"So we think that the Kurdistan people would like to have independence. But their leaders have another agenda and that is our dilemma."

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