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Kurds Threaten to Separate From Iraq

by Aaron Glantz

on coming Iraq civil war

(IPS) ARBIL -- And now the United States is running into difficulties in Northern Iraq where it has enjoyed the support of the largely Kurd population.

Since the 1991 Gulf War whole swaths of Northern Iraq have been controlled by two Kurdish militias, the guerrilla armies of Masoud Barzani's Kurdistan Demoratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

With that has come autonomy and a guarantee of cultural rights. Now, Kurdish leaders are concerned all that could end.

The United Nations Security Council resolution approved in New York this week makes no mention of the rights of Kurds, and appears to scrap the interim constitution which gave the Kurdish region veto power in a permanent constitution.

In a letter to President George W. Bush this week, the leaders of the Kurdish militias threatened secession from Iraq if their self-rule is compromised.

"We have no idea what freedom is and what it is like to have independence like other nations," says Shekhala Ibrahim, deputy director of Masoud Barzani's KDP in Arbil. "For a long time we were persecuted and we were treated with violence and we suffered from ethnic cleansing operations. There are so many mass graves and this is a real example of how we suffered under Saddam."

Shia leaders, who represent the majority of Iraqis, have repeatedly spoken out against an ethnic federation of the kind that would give Kurds special rights. They insist that a future Iraqi government should be elected according to a national one-person, one-vote system.

The country's most respected Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, condemned the interim constitution when it was written because he said it allowed a small percentage of the population to veto the wishes of the majority.

He then refused to meet with UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi until Brahimi made a promise that Iraq would not be governed by the constitution drawn up by the U.S.-appointed Governing Council. Kurds have enjoyed special rights under this constitution.

Shekhala Ibrahim sees a parallel between Sistani's demands and Saddam's regime. "They remain with the same idea they had under Saddam and they think that Kurds will have to stay forever to be controlled by them and be captured by Arabs."

Like most Kurdish politicians, Ibrahim paints the Arabs as intransigent. "You should not keep the knee of the people around the neck of someone else," he says. "The Arabs say you should not speak or demand your rights or raise your voice. We are asking for federalism and we accept it as an alternative to independence so the Arabs have to thank us. We are not asking for more." In their letter to Bush, Talabani and Barzani wrote that the Kurdish leadership would refuse to take part in national elections expected to be held in January next year, and bar officials from entering "Kurdistan" if their demands were not met.

The two leaders also asked Bush for a commitment to protect "Kurdistan" should the ongoing insurgency compel the United States to pull its forces out of the rest of Iraq. U.S. military assistance could be necessary not only to defend Kurds against anti-American forces in Iraq, but also against neighboring countries like Syria, Iran, and Turkey -- all of whom have sizeable Kurdish populations with limited civil rights.

Turkey already maintains two military bases in Northern Iraq, one of which is in the heart of Arbil, Iraqi Kurdistan's largest city. Kurdish politicians have repeatedly demanded that the Turkish army leave, but the Turkish government has refused to pull the forces out. Last year the Turkish parliament voted to invade Iraq if Kurds there declared independence.

"Federation on an ethnic basis does not work as we see in the Yugoslavia experience," argues Ahmed Farouk Unsal, a member of the Turkish parliament from the ruling Islamic Justice and Development Party. "It's not easy to manage because when you base a political structure on ethnicity there cannot be passing from one ethnicity to the other."

But Kurds say that regardless of objections from Shias and neighboring countries, the Bush Adminstration would be wrong to ignore the debt the United States owes to the Kurds. They argue that the United States should remember that Iraqi Kurds supported last year's war.

"It was decided to work with the U.S. for that purpose," says Shukr Piro Sinjo, head of the Iraqi Kurdistan NGO Network, "and the Kurds were strong players in the game."

The militias of Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani fought alongside U.S. troops, he says. "They sacrificed for that purpose. The U.S. has to recognise that our people sacrificed and should pay more attention to our concerns."

Kurdish posturing seems to have won one round. Iraq's new interim prime minister and former CIA and MI-6 asset Iyad Allawi said Wednesday that his government would adhere to the interim constitution until elections are held.

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Albion Monitor June 9, 2004 (

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