In Iraq, Showdown Looms Over Self-Rule for Kurds
Regional Leaders Say They Will Not Give up Quasi-Independence
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 11, 2004; Page A18
IRBIL, Iraq -- Karzan Kanabi, whose clothing shop attracts young men with its cheap bell-bottom pants, never went to Baghdad, never learned Arabic and never felt the desire to go anywhere he would have to mix with Iraq's Arab population.
"We want Kurdistan to be an independent country," said Kanabi, 18, who had his Washington-brand jeans trucked in from Turkey, just to the north. He does no business with the rest of Iraq. "We only need Kurdistan."
The nationalist sentiments voiced by Kanabi and many others in this prosperous Kurdish city 200 miles north of Baghdad have become the leading edge of a storm looming over Iraq. After 13 years of quasi-independence -- the only regime Kanabi and his peers have known -- the 4 million Kurds living under their own government here in the grassy plains and jagged mountains of historical Kurdistan have resolved never to relinquish the self-rule bestowed on them by the United States after the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
"Iraq is made up of two nationalities, Kurds and Arabs," Massoud Barzani, one of the region's two legendary leaders, said in an interview Thursday in nearby Salahuddin. "Kurds have no less a place than Arabs in Iraq."
Kurdish determination, however, has run up against a resolve widely shared by Iraq's new leadership and its backers, including the United States, to preserve a unified country even without the iron fist of former president Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. Iraq, they have pledged, is to be organized as a majority-rule democracy, which would redistribute power among its 25 million inhabitants -- roughly 60 percent Shiite Arabs, 20 percent Sunni Arabs and 20 percent Kurds.
So far, with a bloody anti-U.S. insurgency their primary concern, the new leaders in Baghdad and their sponsors in the Bush administration have postponed the showdown over the Kurdish issue, hoping a crisis can be avoided. But with elections scheduled for January, Kurds here said, the time has drawn near to deal with some of the most explosive issues, particularly the status of the city of Kirkuk. In addition, plans to write a permanent new constitution after the January elections, Kurdish leaders warned, are likely to bring the country face to face with the question of Kurdistan's long-term legal relationship with the central government in Baghdad.
"We have been patient for over a year," said Falah Mustafa Bakir, Barzani's foreign relations adviser. "Now is the time to address it."
Kirkuk, about 150 miles north of Baghdad, lies just outside the Kurdish region as defined over the last decade. The Kurdish leadership, citing historical ties, has demanded that the city and its surrounding oil fields be incorporated into the autonomous Kurdish zone and its special rule. The demand is opposed by leaders of the Arab majority and has been under discussion ever since U.S. troops overthrew Hussein and occupied Iraq 15 months ago.
With the organization of elections about to begin, the Kurdish demand has gained new urgency. Who lives and votes in Kirkuk, Kurdish leaders point out, is a question that will help determine the outcome of the vote -- and who is at the controls -- in a region they regard as theirs.
"This issue is a time bomb," Barzani said, speaking softly and wearing a brown uniform with the Kurds' traditional baggy pants and red-and-white headdress.
Kirkuk has been part of Kurdish folklore from time immemorial, with songs and poems heralding its place in the Kurds' tortured history. But others have long lived there too, including Arabs and Turkmens. More Arabs were brought in by Hussein's government to help smother Kurdish separatism, which had led to three secessionist uprisings in 20 years.
The Kurdish leadership has insisted that Iraqis who were brought in to Arabize the area must be returned to their homes, many of them in southern Iraq. Those leaving should be treated humanely and compensation should be paid, they said in interviews, but the newcomers must leave. At that point, they added, a referendum could be held allowing the city, its Kurdish majority restored, to vote whether to stay in the Arab part of Iraq or join the Kurdish autonomous region.
"We can't make any concessions on Kirkuk," Bakir said. "For us, it's very important."
But the new leaders in Baghdad have made it clear they too regard Kirkuk as very important. Its oil fields have contributed to Iraq's national prosperity for 80 years. Moreover, they have said, readjusting the ethnic composition of cities or regions is not the way Iraq should begin its new political life.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company