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Last Updated: Saturday, 29 January, 2005, 22:17 GMT
Hungry to vote in Iraqi Kurdistan
BBC correspondent Jim Muir
By Jim Muir
BBC correspondent in northern Iraq

A Kurdish man in Irbil, Iraq
Many Kurds seem keen to vote
In a mountain hamlet so small and remote that it does not even have a name, Aisha was drawing water from the outside standpipe which supplies her family of eight and her neighbours in the cluster of mud-brick houses.

The spectacular ranges which crowd the horizon were mantled in snow.

"Of course we'll all be voting in the elections," she said.

"If the weather's good, we'll go by car. If not, we'll have to walk through the snow. We're doing it for our own good, for the future of the Kurds."

In 10 days of travelling through Iraqi Kurdistan, I did not meet a single person who did not intend to go to the polls in the first Iraqi election since the downfall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The Kurds turned out in their masses to elect their own Kurdistan National Assembly in 1992, demonstrating a huge hunger for democracy and self-expression.

That same eagerness is now focused on winning the biggest possible bloc of seats for Kurdistan in the new Iraqi parliament in Baghdad.

'National duty'

Because of the proportional representation system adopted, the scale of the turnout determines the number of seats allocated to each list contesting the polls.

This persuaded the two main Kurdish parties - the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) to shelve their normal rivalry and form a United Kurdistan Coalition with Turcoman, Assyrian, Islamic and other parties.

A man waves a Kurdish flag in Irbil, Iraq
Most Iraqi Kurds would like independence from Baghdad
So in that regard, the competition is not within Kurdistan, but between it and the rest of Iraq for seats in the Baghdad parliament.

Most Kurds seemed to see voting for the coalition as a national duty.

"It's very, very important, I'm so happy I can vote in this election", said Khanda Hassan, a housewife in the city of Sulaymanieh.

"We can choose our leaders, we can choose our representatives in the government."

"I think it's vital for us to vote, because we have the chance to create a federal Iraq in which we can live and have our rights," added Hoshyar Sinjari, a teacher.

'Fateful issue'

A powerful and cohesive Kurdish bloc in the Baghdad parliament would be important in its own right.

But it would wield even greater influence if it holds the balance of power between the other two main blocs likely to emerge from the polls.

These are the United Iraqi Coalition, which includes the big Shia Islamic factions, and the secular-orientated Iraqi List headed by interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

A man hold Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Irbil, Iraq
The main Kurdish parties have joined forces with other parties to boost their chances

"I think the Kurdish bloc will be the first," said PUK leader Jalal Talabani, who is the number one candidate on the Kurdistan list.

"It's true that there is alliance of Shias, our brothers, but I think after the elections, they will not be as united as the Kurdish bloc is.

"So the Kurdish bloc will play a very important role in democratisation, in balancing between different groups and at the same time, in trying to implement the principle of consensus for all important Iraqi issues."

KDP leader Masoud Barzani says the vote is "a very precious occasion" and "the opportunity has to be taken".

"It's a fateful issue for us. The national parliament will draft the permanent constitution, and there will definitely be a bitter battle over the principles and rights to be enshrined in it."

Focus on federalism

The Kurds will be seeking to ensure that the constitution adopts the principle of federalism that would allow them to continue enjoying autonomy in the north, while also benefiting from a large slice of the national cake.

Hence they attach huge importance to gaining the biggest possible say in the Iraqi assembly.

in this phase, federalism is the slogan of the day and that's what we're struggling for
Masoud Barzani
KDP leader
Most Iraqi Kurds would prefer outright independence.

Nearly two million have already endorsed a petition calling for it.

Booths were set up outside the polling stations to attract more support for the independence demand.

Kurdish politicians sympathise with the dream, but rule it out for the time being.

"Independence is a natural and legitimate right for the people of Kurdistan," Mr Barzani told the BBC.

"But in this phase, federalism is the slogan of the day and that's what we're struggling for. It's the option for this stage. As for the future, let's see how things go."

Flashpoint or success story?

Kurdish leaders know that any bid for independence for landlocked Iraqi Kurdistan would attract bitter hostility from powerful neighbours - Turkey, Iran, and Syria, which all have Kurdish minorities - and from Baghdad itself.

Turkey is also watching with a vigilant eye another problem that has been left to be resolved after the election - the status of Kirkuk, the oil-rich province and city which the Kurds insist should be attached to Iraqi Kurdistan.

We don't accept that Kirkuk be absorbed into Kurdistan - I expect this to lead to civil war
Haki Ahmad Saadi
Turcoman schoolteacher

"Of course it must be joined, because it belongs to Kurdistan," said Mr Barzani.

"The Kurds were definitely in Kirkuk before there were Turcomans or Arabs there.

"The situation in the city must be normalised - the Kurds and others driven out by Saddam Hussein must be allowed to return - and then there should be a referendum to determine whether it should join Kurdistan or not."

Kurds believed the election - which includes a poll for provincial councils in Kirkuk and elsewhere - would prove they are a majority in a city claimed with equal passion by Turcomans and Arabs.

Under Saddam Hussein's Arabisation policy, thousands of Kurds, Turcomans and others were expelled, their places taken by Arabs from the south.

"The Turcomans are the majority of the population in Kirkuk," insists Haki Ahmad Saadi, a Turcoman schoolteacher in Kirkuk.

"Arabs and Kurds came after that. We are the real inhabitants. We don't accept that Kirkuk be absorbed into Kurdistan. I expect this to lead to civil war."

So far, major communal clashes have been avoided, though tensions in the city are high.

"Kirkuk can be a flashpoint for civil strife, or it can be a success story, and I think that's where we all have to help the various mechanisms that are now in place to address the issues in 2005," said Noel Guckian, the British consul for northern Iraq, who lives in Kirkuk.


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Kurds are hoping the vote will give them a national voice



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