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Iraqi Kurds Seem Willing to Put Dream on Hold

Many have nationalist aspirations but for now will accept U.S. warnings that their independence would destabilize the region.

May 26, 2003|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

IRBIL, Iraq — At the proclaimed border of Kurdistan a 10-minute drive west of here, peshmerga warriors in the khaki garb of border guards inspect the documents of travelers and traders entering their turf.

At Irbil's central market, fruit vendors and money changers scoff at the Iraqi national currency, which still circulates elsewhere. Kurdistan has its own legal tender, worth 200 times the value of a Baghdad dinar.

From their separate language and media to their region's own taxes and tariffs, Iraqi Kurds have lived for a dozen years in what amounts to the independent state of Kurdistan. Now, though, as Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens, Assyrians and other ethnic groups vie for power with the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, there is growing debate about how much of that autonomy Kurds will sacrifice for the sake of a multiethnic federation.

There is also some doubt among Western officials midwifing the new interim government about the commitment Kurds will make to any national entity based in Baghdad, when they have for so long so openly pined for their own state.

Leading figures from among the region's 36 political movements and parties profess pragmatism, promising allegiance to the emerging government on condition Kurdistan recovers territory lost to Hussein's "Arabization" that expelled Kurds from areas they once dominated.

"We will always dream of having our own state, but we are realistic enough to know our boundaries," says Abdul Salam Berwari, political editor of the daily newspaper Khabat ("Struggle") and an influential member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party that rules the western half of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Too much autonomy for Iraq's Kurds would encourage ethnic brethren in neighboring states to seek an alliance with them, further straining relations between the Kurds and the governments of Turkey, Syria and Iran, the editor notes.

The KDP sees the Kurds' future as more secure in a united Iraq, he says, as long as they retain the rights enjoyed under a U.S.-enforced "no-fly" zone that effectively severed Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq.

More radical Kurds, however, threaten to spoil a negotiated solution by demanding full independence and eventual union with Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iran in a Greater Kurdistan.

"We've struggled for our independence for 100 years. We are willing to accept a federal state at this stage, like in America or Germany, but in the future we want 100% independence. We want to have our own country," insists Faruqadir Mohammed, head of the Kurdistan Independence Party.

Mohammed contends that most Kurds share his nationalist aspirations but accept U.S. warnings that independence would destabilize the region.

There is little U.S. military presence in Kurdistan, as peshmerga fighters have long kept the peace in their own territories. U.S. forces are viewed here as allies, having helped defend Kurds against the brutality and discrimination of Hussein's regime. But some observers fear the mood could swing if Kurds get short shrift in the power-sharing arrangements or if their relative plenty dissipates under taxation from Baghdad.

"We would have to insist that all tax money collected here should be spent here. We are not responsible for the damages suffered elsewhere," says Ali Qader, a local official of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

Kurdistan, already more prosperous than the rest of the country due to its de facto exemption from 12 years of U.N. sanctions, was spared the destruction rained on the capital and cities to the south.

The peshmergas, whose name means "those who face death," say they are amenable to a federal government that would allow Kurdistan to retain its autonomy, including a militia.

"We have lived through much sacrifice and torture to secure our freedom and we don't want to lose our rights," says Sami Sarhad, a 42-year-old peshmerga guarding the customs border between Mosul and Irbil.

Sarhad insists that Kurds need their own state, but he echoes the political line of Kurdistan's leaders in saying Kurds could accept a central government provided there is fair representation.

"If the Americans and the British control the choice of the next regime, it will be OK. But we are afraid the old regime will come back bit by bit if the troops withdraw and leave us again to be dominated by the Arabs," says the peshmerga, who says he named twin sons born in early May after President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Kurdistan, with fields of ripening grain and city streets bustling with life, stands in sharp contrast to bombed and impoverished Baghdad. But even the Iraqi Kurdish enclave is divided, with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan ruling the eastern sector from the mountain city of Sulaymaniyah and the KDP governing the western half from Irbil.

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