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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 July, 2004, 13:49 GMT 14:49 UK
Kurds anxious over Iraq's future

By Jim Muir
BBC correspondent in Irbil, northern Iraq

There was no sense of celebration in Iraqi Kurdistan as Paul Bremer flew out of Baghdad after handing over sovereignty to the new Iraqi government.

Irbil market
Kurds have been running northern Iraq since 1991
The handover left the Kurds in sombre mood, deeply anxious about a future which they believe is as uncertain as ever.

In immediate practical terms, it will make no difference to the Iraqi Kurds.

They have been running their own affairs virtually independently since 1991, when they rose up against Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf war, fled to the mountains as he struck back, then returned to their homes with a western air umbrella keeping the Baghdad government's forces at bay.

Since 1992, they have had their own parliament in Irbil.

Mini-statehood

Because their region - recognised officially as Iraqi Kurdistan under the 1970 constitution - is divided between the two major Kurdish factions, it has two separate governments with all the trappings of mini-statehood.

So what has just been given to the rest of Iraq, the Kurds have been enjoying in practice for over a decade.

And the leadership struggles now just starting up in the Iraqi Arab communities, among the Sunnis and Shia, have been largely resolved among the Kurds long since, giving their area a stability and cohesion the rest of Iraq lacks.

Despite all this, the Kurds are deeply worried in the wake of the handover.

They feel their freedom is once again under threat
The United Nations resolution adopted in June to cover the post-Coalition period did not specifically enshrine what they regard as their right to autonomy within a federal Iraq.

They feel their freedom is once again under threat.

The CPA also left unresolved the explosive issue of who owns the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

Recent years have brought the northern Iraqi Kurds increasing prosperity as well as relative stability and security.

Since the overthrow of the Baathist regime last year, there is practically full employment and a building boom in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Seeking independence

Small wonder that an apparently large majority of ordinary Iraqi Kurds would strongly favour outright independence, though that is a dirty word both in Baghdad and among Iraq's neighbours - especially Turkey, Iran and Syria, all of which have their own Kurdish minorities.

"It's better for us to have our independence," said Jalal Kerim, a retired teacher.

"When a child grows up, he wants to leave his family, to have his own life. That doesn't mean giving up the family ties, but we all like to live independently."

"We gave sacrifices to achieve this semi-independence we have now," added Gona Haji, a female student.

A lush valley in Iraqi Kurdistan
Iraqi Kurds control an area of fertile valleys and rugged mountains

"Many Kurds died for this, so it is very bad to rejoin Iraq. The solution is to change this semi-independence in Kurdistan into true independence."

"The only thing we have in common with the Iraqi Arabs is that we're Muslims. But we Kurds have our own language, geography, history and economy - all the things you need to be independent," said Tariq, a writer.

"The coalition is forcing our political parties to rejoin Iraq, but the Kurds want independence."

But Iraqi Kurdish leaders know that pursuing independence in their land-locked patch of rugged mountains, fertile valleys and dusty plains would be a disaster course, given hostility from powerful neighbours and from the rest of Iraq.

Constitution conflict

So they have opted for regional self-rule within a federal Iraq, and they make it clear that this will be their absolute bottom line in the tough talks still to come on Iraq's future constitution.

"After all the bitter experience the Kurdish people and the people of Kurdistan have been through, there can be no retreat," Masoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, told BBC News Online.

"Our basic condition for staying in Iraq is that it should be a federal, democratic, pluralistic Iraq.

"A permanent constitution which does not include that, cannot be accepted. If there is no agreement on that, there will be no constitution."

The only thing we have in common with the Iraqi Arabs is that we're Muslims
Tariq, teacher

But the Kurds have been dismayed that Iraqi Arab factions, particularly among the Shia, who supported Kurdish autonomy during the period of opposition to Saddam Hussein, have now apparently abandoned that commitment in favour of a stronger, more centralised Iraqi state.

"We sacrificed in order to live free in this country, and that we should have rights," said Mr Barzani.

"We hope that events won't develop in a negative direction, and that Kurdish-Arab brotherhood can be strengthened.

"But if the rights of the Kurdish people are denied, then of course, the Kurdish people cannot accept to live as second-class citizens. They must live free and with rights."

Territorial gains

At the core of the Kurds' self-reliance are their peshmerga guerrilla forces.

They fought Saddam Hussein for decades, and joined the coalition to help overthrow him.

Last year's war brought them territorial gains - they expanded their area of control by about two-thirds, seizing some 30,000 square kilometres of what they regard as original Kurdish land.

Iraqi Kurd
Kurdish independence campaigners say their political leaders do not reflect their desires

Their arsenals were also swollen by the capture of many Iraqi army tanks and guns.

"The peshmerga are not militias, they are a regular Kurdish army that fought to liberate Iraq, not just Kurdistan," said Capt Azad Muwafaq.

"In the future their name may be changed, but that doesn't mean they'll be dissolved like other militias."

The peshmerga are not being formally disbanded as the Iraqi Arab militias are supposed to be.

They are being dispersed around the new police and civil defence units.

But nobody doubts that if it came to the crunch, they would rally to the flag of Kurdistan and fight to protect Kurdish freedom.

Kurdish leaders hope it will not come to that, and say they will work hard with their Iraqi Arab interlocutors to try to reach an understanding in the coming months over federalism and the constitution.

But many Kurds are angry at the coalition for, as they see it, leaving them in the lurch.

And they are even angrier about the situation at Kirkuk, which is already very tense and could provide the flashpoint for serious trouble.


Under Saddam Hussein's arabisation policy, uncounted thousands of Kurds, Turcomans and other non-Arabs were driven out of Kirkuk to make way for mainly Shia Arabs brought up from the south.

The Kurds are bitter that many of those displaced have not been allowed to return to their homes.

"On the issue of dealing with arabisation, the coalition dragged their feet a great deal, and we censure them harshly for that," said KDP leader Masoud Barzani.

"They reneged on the promises they gave us. Of course Kirkuk is a Kurdish city.

"Basically this issue is not even open to discussion with anyone."

The Kurds accepted a solution put forward in the Temporary Administration Law (the provisional constitution) in March, under which the original inhabitants would be allowed to return, Arab settlers would do likewise and be compensated, and Kurdish towns hived off from Kirkuk governorate to adjacent Arab provinces would be re-attached to Kirkuk.

There would then be a referendum on whether Kirkuk should join an autonomous Kurdish region or remain with Baghdad.

The Kurds say they have no doubt at all which way it would go.

Simmering tensions

But that is a long-term project, in a situation where time may be running out as tempers rise.

The Kurds want Kirkuk - with its oil-laden environs - as their capital.

But local Arabs, Turcomans and others are as fiercely opposed to the idea as the Kurds are for it.

There have been many incidents.

Alarmists believe Kirkuk could even help ignite a civil war.

"I'm afraid that the Kurds may be beginning to lose patience," Ahmad Askari, a Kurdish member of the Kirkuk city council told BBC News Online.

"There may be trouble, because Kurdish houses are still occupied by Arabs brought here under arabisation. They are still in Kirkuk. If there is a strong government, it will stop these steps to civil war. If not, I am afraid."

The fate of Kirkuk could well set the pattern for Iraq's near future: Will it be resolved by reason and dialogue, or by inter-communal violence and force of arms?



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