High Expectations of Independence

Members of the Kurdish militia, or pesh merga, train in Irbil in northern Iraq, a region that has enjoyed de facto autonomy under U.S. protection since the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Members of the Kurdish militia, or pesh merga, train in Irbil in northern Iraq, a region that has enjoyed de facto autonomy under U.S. protection since the 1991 Persian Gulf War. (By Bassam Sebti For The Washingon Post)

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By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 1, 2005

IRBIL, Iraq -- Two hundred miles south, in the distant Iraqi capital of Baghdad, Iraq's top Kurdish leaders have pledged that they want to keep the Kurdish north as part of Iraq, as Washington and all Iraq's neighbors want.

But here at noon on a tarmac training ground in the north, in the Kurdish regional capital of Irbil, the Kurdish forces pivoting through a parade drill last week were marching to a different tune -- under a different flag, and to a different tongue.

Iraq's Kurds are "100 percent" for independence, said the battalion commander, Col. Sayyid Hajar Tahir, as his subordinates led the men in turning battle squares.

The Kurds wore the brown-on-brown of Iraq's new national forces, to which they technically belong. But the flag flying here and across the region known as Kurdistan was the Kurdish sunburst, with Iraq's green and white banner nowhere in sight. Tahir's officers droned their orders in Kurdish, not the Arabic of the Arab majority down south.

With all the changes afoot in Iraq, the Kurdish commander said, he expected Kurdish independence to be coming soon.

"If not today, then tomorrow," Tahir said, smiling. "If not tomorrow, the day after."

The demands from Kurdistan for independence and for immediate action on broader territorial claims are shaping much of the debate in Baghdad as Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs, Kurds, who mostly practice the Sunni version of Islam, and other groups draft the country's post-Saddam Hussein constitution.

Kurds have led the drive for a federal system for Iraq -- one that would leave Kurdistan within Iraq's borders, but preserve much of the de facto autonomy Kurds gained under U.S. protection after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Sunni Arabs say the federal system could lead to the breakup of Iraq.

Delegates to the constitutional committee call the federalism proposal the main unresolved dispute as drafters of the charter struggle to meet an Aug. 15 deadline. Some delegates spoke Sunday of an extension to work out the impasse.

While avoiding talk of independence, some top Kurdish leaders in Baghdad are staking a claim to the right of Kurdish self-determination, saying the Kurdish north will remain in Iraq, but only by choice.

Kurdistan and other regions of the new, federal Iraq should "coexist voluntarily together as opposed to being kept together by brute force and genocide," said Barham Salih, an influential minister in the interim Iraqi government drafting the national constitution.

The federal system "could provide the Kurdish people with a safe and secure way to self-governance," Salih added.


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