SULAYMANIYA, Iraq — Sitting on the top of Azmar Mountain, looking down on the twinkling lights of this Kurdish city with a whiskey in his plastic cup and a skewer of roasted lamb on his plate, Bahdai Ahmad Hassan could be forgiven for thinking that Iraq, with all its problems, might as well be another country.
Here in Iraqi Kurdistan, government buildings are barely barricaded, an effective police force and a proud army provide security, and the hundreds of families who drive up to these heights to picnic on a balmy weekend evening can sit without fear of gunfire or mortars. As for the terrorized Iraq to the south, in Hassan's view, who needs it?
Since the hand-over of power to a new Iraqi government, many Kurds are asking themselves whether the bargain made by their political leaders to rejoin the rest of Iraq after 13 years of semi-independence is really worth it. At the very least, Hassan said, Kurds must demand more equality and autonomy than is on offer. To him, independence would be better.
But many political leaders here say their Arab compatriots aren't taking their concerns seriously.
When Iraqi leaders signed a temporary constitution in March guaranteeing Kurds veto power, some Shiite Muslim politicians refused to attend the ceremony. After pressure from Shiite religious leaders, the U.N. resolution ratifying the hand-over did not even mention the temporary constitution.
Incensed Kurds see many Arabs as ungrateful for the Kurds' efforts alongside the Americans to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
"Immediately after the liberation of Iraq, the people here were very happy and proud of their achievements and the gaining an important place in the governing bodies of Iraq," said Hassan, a sports official in the Kurdistan government.
"But after the incident with the U.N. resolution, they became impatient because their concerns were not answered.... Kurds and the peshmerga [fighters] took part effectively in the liberation war, but what we got back was not as much as we put in."
At the heart of the discontent, he said, is that Arabs treat the Kurds -- who are ethnically and linguistically different -- as "little brothers." For instance, although Kurds were awarded eight posts in the new interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, including a deputy premiership, there was a consensus that the top two positions, the prime ministership and the presidency, would go only to Arabs. Kurds make up about 20% of Iraq's 25 million people.
Also, Kurds' wishes to absorb the city and province of Kirkuk into their regional administration have been deferred indefinitely. The strategic, oil-rich city was predominantly Kurdish and Turkmen until Hussein's government resettled large numbers of Arabs there.
"They are all the time going on about their rights. Why are they not ready to recognize the rights of others?" Hassan said of the Arabs.
Allawi, whose government took over from the U.S.-led coalition June 28, visited Kurdistan on July 11, meeting with the two most prominent Kurdish politicians, Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani. He came away with a promise of security help from the formidable peshmerga forces -- 55,000 fighters strong -- who officially are being distributed among the new national Iraqi army, police and border guard.
But the peshmerga -- whose name means "those who face death" -- are likely to remain an army within the army. No one doubts that they could be quickly recalled to fight for Kurdistan if summoned.
In fact, they still wear a patch of the Kurdish flag, not the official Iraqi flag, on their uniforms.
Similarly, the Kurdish flag flies over all government buildings here. On the highway just north of Kirkuk one day this month, a man dressed in Kurdish costume and holding a pole flying the Kurdish flag stood by the highway.
At the peshmerga's headquarters outside Sulaymaniya, the deputy commander of the general staff, Mustafa Sayed Qadir, said his troops were ready to help stabilize all Iraq and would even venture into Arab areas if given the orders. "Give us Fallouja and we will put it in order in only one month," he joked about the Sunni Muslim stronghold of the insurgency.
But he grew more serious when discussing Kurdish demands. "Kurds insist on their rights, and if Kurdish rights are not recognized and respected, Iraq will never know stability," Qadir warned.
Regional Interior Minister Osman Hajy Mahmod said Kurdistan could offer the central government the benefits of its "strong and well-formed security apparatus." But more important than that, he said, Iraq should benefit from Kurdistan's experience of democracy for the last 13 years. The region has governed itself since the Persian Gulf War in 1991, when the U.S. and Britain established a "no-fly zone" to protect it from Hussein's forces.