Kurdish Areas of the Middle East

Wary Eyes Cast on Iraqi Kurds

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 15, 2005

ISTANBUL -- The proposed Iraqi constitution that would enshrine a measure of independence for the country's ethnic Kurds is viewed with apprehension by three neighbors already struggling to accommodate the aspirations of their own Kurdish populations.

Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq each share a portion of the mountainous expanse of the Middle East long inhabited by ethnic Kurds, who are thought to number around 27 million. A minority in each country, the Kurds are united by language, vibrant customs and an abiding sense of grievance over being denied a country of their own. They were promised one as the victors began drawing lines on maps after World War I, but when the ink dried, Kurdistan had been divided among four other countries.

Then three Great Powers -- the United States, Britain and France -- returned to the region in 1991, to fight the Persian Gulf War. It ended with Kurds in Iraq's rugged north essentially left alone to rule themselves under the protection of U.S. and British air patrols. Twelve years later, their enclave served as a staging ground for the 2003 invasion.

On Saturday, voters across Iraq will decide on a constitution that would acknowledge Kurdish quasi-independence as the law of the land. The document offers legal sanction to an extensive autonomy that already has inspired hopes among Kurds looking on intently from the east, north and west.

In Syria, where Kurds account for about 9 percent of the population of 18 million, the north of the country has been tense since rioting broke out in several Kurdish cities in March 2004. The unrest, which left at least 30 dead after government troops opened fire, began at a soccer game where Kurds' chants of "George Bush!" were answered by Arabs' chants of "Long live Saddam Hussein!"

"The Kurds were clearly emboldened by what was happening in Iraq," said Joshua Landis, a University of Oklahoma historian who is in Syria as a Fulbright scholar. He noted that the soccer game occurred just after Washington endorsed Iraqi laws that gave Kurds veto power over a new constitution.

"In a sense, this just changed the whole environment among the Kurds, because it was seen as the U.S. endorsing Kurdish independence," Landis said.

In the aftermath of the unrest, Syrian security forces clamped down on travel by outsiders to Kurdish areas. But Damascus also began to invest there and even floated the possibility of restoring full citizenship to some 300,000 Kurds stripped of that status decades earlier.

Analysts said the gesture stalled amid fears that Kurds would form an alliance with other groups opposing the Baathist rule of President Bashar Assad. The intrigues grew with the murder last May of a prominent Kurdish sheik, Mashuq Khasnawi, who had openly solicited alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, an Arab group with roots in political Islam that is banned in Syria.

A government spokeswoman said Syria had no official comment on Iraq's proposed constitution.

Iran faced mass demonstrations in several majority-Kurdish cities this summer, sparked by the death in police custody of a Kurdish activist whose body security agents dragged behind a truck in Mahabad, a center of Kurdish nationalism. Activists said that helicopter gunships opened fire on crowds in another city, a charge that Iran denied.

"What is going on in Iraq has a significant effect in Iran, especially in Kurdish Iran," said Morteza Esfandiari, a Washington representative of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan, which seeks independence. "The border is pretty loose."

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