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Kurds Celebrate Rise Of One of Their Own

Selection of Iraqi President Is Milestone

By Marwan Ani
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 7, 2005; Page A26

KIRKUK, Iraq, April 6 -- Kahwla Aziz Mohammed can remember receiving many things from her government in far-off Baghdad, including the bullets that Iraqi security forces used to execute her husband.

In 1988, Saddam Hussein's government killed thousands of Kurds with poison gas. In 1991, the year of her husband's execution, soldiers with more bullets made refugees out of an estimated 1.5 million Kurds in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War.

A Kurdish boy rides with a picture of Jalal Talabani, the newly selected president, in Sulaymaniyah. (Sasa Kralj -- AP)

But on Wednesday, Mohammed and Kurds across northern Iraq celebrated something new emanating from the south: a share of power.

"I couldn't believe at first that a Kurdish leader will be a president for the country," Mohammed said, taking her sons and grandsons out into the Kirkuk neighborhoods to press candies and fruit drinks on strangers, traditional means of celebration in this tremendously traditional land.

In Kirkuk, Mosul and lush, green Sulaymaniyah, Kurds poured into the streets by the thousands, pounding drums and roaring cheers at the Iraqi National Assembly's election of a Kurdish faction leader, Jalal Talabani, to the presidency.

Men and women stood shoulder to shoulder, swirling white handkerchiefs and swaying. People paraded down roads, slapping stickers of Kurdish flags on government buildings and passing cars. "Today is the happiest day on Earth," said Haman Najm Abdullah, 55, a trader at a Kirkuk market.

Talabani's election puts the onetime rebel leader in a largely ceremonial post in a national government that is to write a constitution taking the country into new elections. More importantly, Wednesday's vote ended a half-century of powerlessness for Iraqi Kurds, who last saw one of their own in high office in the final days of Iraq's monarchy.

In the Near East, Kurds are spread out across four countries' borders, with no single nation of their own. In all four countries, they are a minority.

In Iraq, Kurds make up about 15 to 20 percent of the population, about the same percentage as Sunni Arabs and one-third that of Iraq's Shiite Arabs. In an informal poll conducted during Iraq's Jan. 30 national elections, more than 90 percent of Iraqi Kurd voters indicated they wanted independence, poll organizers said.

But the Kurds' enthusiastic participation in the national vote won them the second-largest share of seats in the National Assembly, behind the Shiites. That helped secure Talabani the presidency, and a number of top cabinet seats are expected to follow.

"After I saw the voting for Talabani in the assembly, I realized that Iraq is really moving to democracy -- Arabs and Kurds, all one land," Nozard Ali Hasan, another Kurd, said in Kirkuk.

"I was very happy when I saw Uncle Jalal as the president," said Mohammed, the widow, using the name by which supporters call Talabani.

"I am sure he will return all of our rights, because he struggled to get the rights for the Kurds," she said. "He will carry on and work for the same for all Iraqis, not only the Kurds."

Talabani and others in the incoming government will have to work out agreements on distributing revenue from the rich oil fields in the Kurdish region and control of the tens of thousands of militia fighters known as pesh merga.

Talking with reporters in Baghdad on Wednesday, Talabani tried to address the worries of southern and central Iraqis that the country would split along factional lines.

The pesh merga would be part of the Iraqi armed forces, he said. Once redesigned, the national flag would fly over Kurdistan as well as the rest of the country, he said. And Iraq would keep just the one capital.

"There's no presidency in Kurdistan," he said. "The president remains in Baghdad."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company