Page last updated at 10:57 GMT, Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Kurdistan: A state in the making?

By Crispin Thorold
BBC News, Irbil, Iraq

Teashop owner Khalil
Kurds and Arabs lived like brothers before Saddam, says Khalil
In the coming days, a delegation of senior Kurdish leaders from the north of Iraq is expected to travel to Baghdad to try to resolve some of the outstanding issues that divide the country's politicians.

The meetings could be tense. There is growing resentment amongst Arab politicians about the gains the Kurds have made since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Since then, a combination of canny politics, tough negotiating and their closeness to the US has ensured that the Kurds now punch well above their weight in the politics of Iraq.

The Iraqi president is a Kurd, Kurdish parties are part of the governing coalition and the Kurdistan region in the north of Iraq has a high degree of autonomy.

However, many issues that are critical for the Kurds - and Iraq - remain unresolved, including:

    • the future of Iraq's oil industry

    • the status of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk

    • the national budget

    • who should pay the salaries of the peshmerga, the Kurdish fighters

Twin fears

In Irbil, it is easy to forget that you are in Iraq. The city, which is the seat of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), has all the hallmarks of a capital city in the making.

The Kurdish flag - red, white and green with a blazing yellow sun - flies from all the government buildings. The Iraqi national flag is nowhere to be seen.

At the airport, passports are stamped, Republic of Iraq - Kurdistan Region. The labyrinthine visa rules that apply in the rest of the country are not in force here.

A good place to judge local opinion is Khalil's teashop in the bazaar. Since the 1930s, Kurds have been coming here to enjoy the strong and sweet chai.

Khalil's is more than a teashop. It is an unofficial museum.

The walls are covered in photographs of key moments and figures in Kurdish history. Even Saddam Hussein - hated by Kurds - is here.

"Kurds and Arabs lived in this country like brothers, but when Saddam came he made a lot of problems between the Arab and Kurds," said the owner Khalil.

"He killed a lot of Kurdish people. He damaged the relationship between the Kurdish and Arab people."

Senior Kurdish politicians argue that it is this history that is shaping Iraq's current politics.

"The Shia are afraid of their past," said Dr Mohammed Ihsan, a cabinet minister in the regional government. "They have nothing to be scared of in the future because they are a majority.

"Sunnis are afraid of the future, but they had a great past ruling the country. We Kurds are the ones who are afraid of both the past and the future."


Kurdish fears drove their hard bargaining after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Their gains were considerable. But could the Kurds have been too successful?

Tailor Muhammad Ibrahim making flags
Flag maker Muhammad does not expect big sales for his new Iraqi standards
Take Iraq's stalled oil law - when there was no agreement, the Kurds decided to go it alone.

The KRG has negotiated exploration contracts with international oil firms. That infuriated Iraq's central government.

"To be frank, the contracts that have been signed by the KRG have complicated the issue," said Iraqi Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani in a recent BBC interview.

"They have not been public. They have not been competitive. They have not been transparent. No region can enter into contracts for the development of oil laws without the approval of the central authority."

Arab politicians are increasingly frustrated. Some Kurds believe that the resistance they are now facing in Baghdad is reminiscent of another era.

"There is an alarming rise in Arab chauvinism," said one senior Kurdish politician.

In the past few weeks there was a glimmer of hope when Iraqi politicians finally agreed on a new national flag.

The removal of the three stars on the previous Iraqi flag, which the Kurds said were linked to the Baath Party, have made the new design acceptable to them.

Now Muhammad Ibrahim, a tailor in Irbil, is making a batch of the new flags, which will fly in the city at a meeting of Arab parliamentarians next month.

Asked if he believes it will ever replace the flag of the Kurds, he replies with one word: "No".

Back at the teashop there are lots of pictures of the President of the Kurdistan Region, Massoud Barzani, but there are none of any of the recent Iraqi prime ministers. So does the owner Khalil respect the government in Baghdad?

"No," said Khalil. "We have a relationship with our prime minister here. Barzani's our leader now, we don't have anything to do with Baghdad."

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