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Iraq's Kurds Ambivalent On Charter
Already Semi-Autonomous, Region Is Wary of Change

By Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 13, 2005

IRBIL, Iraq, Oct. 12 -- In the days leading up to Iraq's historic national elections nearly nine months ago, the streets of this Kurdish provincial capital buzzed with excitement. Aging former pesh merga militia fighters sang revolutionary songs in an impromptu bus parade around the city. Political party workers sat in striped tents outside campaign headquarters and shouted through bullhorns, urging people to vote in the country's first democratic elections in nearly half a century.

The result gave Kurdish leaders their first chance to participate in a central government in decades and a large hand in drafting the new Iraqi constitution that will be put to the vote on Saturday. But in the days before this second historic vote, a city that looked like one big street party in January feels more like a deserted Wrigley Field after the Chicago Cubs let another pennant chance slip away.

Posters announcing the constitutional referendum are noticeably absent from walls that were covered in January. On a busy street corner, a lone pink election banner competed for attention with one announcing new flights from the city's airport and another advertising sweets for the holy month of Ramadan. And across the city, residents expressed ambivalence about the referendum, even though it could give the Kurds a measure of legitimacy they have long sought.

As written, the constitution formally recognizes the existence of a largely autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, makes Arabic and Kurdish the dual official languages of Iraq and supports a Kurdish constitution that can override that of the central government.

"I should vote for the constitution because we want to have democracy, to have freedom," Ghazi Mahmood said in the electronics shop where he works on Iskan Street, a lively downtown spot that bustles at night with young men drinking tea and families strolling past clothing shops. But the father of four young girls said he had more pressing problems than the referendum.

"There's no business," Mahmood said, blaming dangerous roads between the north and the rest of the country. "I don't care about the presidents. I just want my life. I want to watch movies from India."

In a nearby cosmetics shop, Hemen Ferhad, 20, had little to say about the referendum. "People get benefits for it," he said blandly from across a counter where 22 different kinds of pressed powder were displayed.

Ahmed Hama Ameen, 21, a self-described foot soldier for the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) who was baking pastries down the street, was more optimistic. "I am hoping this voting succeeds, and all the people go for voting to show the world what we are and what we want to be," he said.

Many Kurds believed the January elections marked the first step toward establishing Kurdish independence and separating their region from Iraq. Instead, some Kurds complain that their political leaders have sold them out by pushing for a federalist system of government that would make the Kurdish region a state within Iraq.

Fadiil Merani, a high-ranking leader in the KDP, appeared on Kurdish satellite television Tuesday night to plead with people to vote, telling them, "You are voting for yourself as a member of a Kurdish society, as an Iraqi citizen."

In an interview Wednesday in the village of Salahuddin, the headquarters of the KDP and its leader, Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish regional president, Merani said political leaders were well aware of what they were up against. "I know every single Kurd wants independence," Merani said. "This is a goal you have to struggle for -- but when the time comes."

Merani said there was a misconception that Kurdish leaders were pushing for unification of a country that has a history of oppressing the Kurds, most recently under former president Saddam Hussein. "We know it's important for us to be part of Iraq strategically," he explained. "We know if there is no peace and security, it's going to affect us."

Some of the disconnection may come down to two competing perspectives on the referendum.

One of the reasons Kurdish leaders fought for recognition under the new constitution is that it would mean little change for a region that has been semi-autonomous since the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The Kurds do not want a new central government to interfere with their laws and way of life.

Hamza Hamid Muhamad, a spokesman for the Irbil government, said it was important that the new constitution allow Kurds to continue making their own decisions about local matters. "The laws and decisions in the central government should not be 100 percent applied on us unless the sovereignty of Iraq is at stake," he said.

Azad Musa, the deputy general director of Irbil International Airport, said he expected little change if the constitution were approved. "We don't think the central government will have a bad influence over our government," he said, "because we are now part of the dialogue."

If anything, Musa said, becoming a distinct part of Iraq should help the Kurdish region in negotiations for new business and economic development. "We will be an honest, legitimate government," he said.

But in the sitting room of their modest home, Nawzad Abdulrahman, 50, and his wife, Jawan Ibrahim, 36, said they saw no point in taking part in the vote Saturday. "We haven't even seen the articles of the constitution," Abdulrahman said. "People are not interested in the process."

Ibrahim said she was disappointed that nothing had changed after the January elections. The city still experiences electrical shortages, and the wage gap between the rich -- those presumed to be connected to the political parties -- and the poor has only widened.

"If independence is written in the constitution, it's very good," she said. "It would allow us to show us as a Kurdish nation. We want our rights, just like any nation in the world."

Special correspondent Sarok Abdulla Ahmed contributed to this report.

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