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High Expectations of Independence
For Many Kurds in Iraqi North, Autonomy Is Just a Means to an End

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.

It's a view seldom heard on the streets of Kurdistan.

"Independence!" said mechanic Sammi Muhammed, interrupting a question about whether he preferred federalism or independence. He spoke at the foot of Irbil's ancient fortress, the center of what Kurds say is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.

"I don't like Iraq -- Arabic Iraq. I'm a Kurd and I'm in Kurdistan," Muhammed insisted, then volunteered, "I'm ready to fight."

At issue is the future of the 4 million to 5 million Kurds in Iraq, as well as the total estimated 30 million ethnic Kurds inhabiting a swath of territory from Turkey to the republics of the former Soviet Union.

Historically stateless, Kurds have lost out on every nation-building bid since the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.

Turkey, Syria and Iran fear that independence for Kurdistan would encourage uprisings by their own minority Kurds. Some in Iran already blame violence last month, when Kurds rioted in one border city and Kurdish guerrillas killed three policemen, on the recent inauguration of the first elected regional president for Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, a longtime Kurdish faction leader.

U.S. officials have tried to squelch Kurdish aspirations for independence, endorsing instead a weak federal system.

Iraq's Kurdish leaders know that declaring Kurdistan's independence now would risk economic strangulation or attack by its neighbors.

With no seaport of its own, Kurdistan depends on trade rolling across the border by truck from Turkey for its current economic surge. Foreign companies and nonprofit groups, discouraged by bombings, kidnappings and mayhem from setting up shop to the south, are also moving in.

Scrambling to overcome Kurdistan's isolation, Kurds opened international airports in Irbil in April, and in the eastern Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah last week. Newly created Kurdistan Airlines logged its first flight last month. Arab neighbors have so far refused it permission to schedule direct flights to their countries, a sign of the shunning an independent Kurdistan could expect.

Construction cranes, steel girders and rising concrete blocks dominate the squat skyline of Irbil, in contrast to the bombed-out blight of Baghdad.

The prosperity and comparative peace of the north have brought increasingly assertive Kurdish demands upon the struggling, Shiite-led national government in Baghdad -- demands that leaders here say must be met to ensure Kurdish approval of the eventual constitution.

For example, the Kurdish parliament has called for a Kurdish vote on independence to be held in eight years, said Adnan Mufti, president of the Kurdish assembly.

Kurdish leaders also have demanded the return of several towns and cities they say are historically Kurdish. The claim extends above all to Kirkuk, the center of northern Iraq's oil production.

Hussein's government in the late 1980s moved thousands of Arab families into Kirkuk to offset other ethnic groups' claims to the city. Since his fall, hundreds of Kurdish families have moved to Kirkuk, squatting in a stadium and elsewhere, ready for what Kurds say must be the mandatory relocation of those Arab families.

Mufti said Kurdish leaders have pushed for the Baghdad government to take concrete steps toward moving out those Arab families before the Aug. 15 deadline for the constitution.

Kurdish leaders in Baghdad denied linking those demands to Kurdish approval of the constitution. They also said the resettlement of Arab families installed by Hussein would be peaceful, and was overdue.

Already, assassinations of Arab officials in Kirkuk are frequent. Kurds in the security forces have also been accused of kidnapping hundreds of Arabs and ethnic Turkmens from Kirkuk, according to U.S. and Kurdish officials and the family members of the alleged victims.

Many Kurds fear those security forces as well. They freeze and fall silent when asked in public about Barzani's administration, as Iraqis did in Hussein's time in Baghdad.

Alleged abuses under Barzani's government, and the uneasy detente between Barzani's political party and the one that controls the east of Kurdistan, threaten future trouble for Kurdistan, whatever its status.

Independence-minded Kurds, however, say they want only to start the experiment of nation-building.

"The people are very happy," Tahir said. "Because they're going to be part of the future."

Staff writer Robin Wright in Washington contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company