Kurds Wonder Where They Fit in the New Iraq

Times Staff Writer

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.

“A real push should be given to democracy in the region,” Mahmod said. “Kurdistan can be held up as a good example. If this were done, people in the rest of Iraq and the Middle East would be able see that the U.S. is not just here for its purposes, but to help them.”

Iraqi Kurdistan’s leading poet, Sherko Bekas, is skeptical of Arab aspirations to democracy.

“From where will that democracy emerge?” he said. “Do you think it can be built from Ramadi or Fallouja? Do you think the Sunni man will embrace democracy when he does not even allow his women to go outside without a veil?”

Bekas led a petition drive this spring that gathered 1.8 million signatures favoring a referendum to determine whether Kurdistan should be part of Iraq or become independent. Many people signed with their blood, he said. He recalled Hussein’s genocidal Anfal campaign of 1988 against the Kurds, including a chemical attack that killed 5,000 of them. After having suffered so much at the hands of Iraq’s Arabs, he said, Kurds would be better off going their own way.

“Eighty-three years ago, Kurds were wronged -- annexed to this Iraq against their will after the first World War,” he said. After decades of oppression, he said, “there is nothing inside us that makes us feel connected to Iraq.”

Their attitude toward the Americans is one way Kurds differ from many Arab Iraqis, said Omar Fatah, the acting prime minister of the Kurdish regional administration in Sulaymaniya.

“When the coalition forces came, we welcomed them because they came to free Iraq and free the Iraqi people,” he said, “and we still keep them in our hearts as liberators, not occupiers.”

Nevertheless, there is growing concern in some quarters that the United States is willing to abandon the Kurds in order to mollify the more restive Arabs. “Some people say, ‘Let’s start killing Americans -- then they will respect us,’ ” Hassan said.

Although overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, Kurds are much less strict in their interpretation of their faith than Arab Iraqis. Many women do not veil themselves; the sale and consumption of alcohol is widely tolerated; Israel is not considered an enemy as it is in much of Arab Iraq. Kurds fear being forced into a straitjacket if religious forces gain the upper hand in Baghdad.

Women now fight in the peshmerga as officers and ordinary soldiers. On a recent morning, about 50 female recruits were being shown how to march and handle Kalashnikov rifles. Others were on duty at checkpoints at the general staff headquarters.

Kurdish pride is on display in the rapid development of the land. Work on a commercial international airport started outside Sulaymaniya in January and is scheduled to be finished in a year.

It will be handy for landlocked Kurdistan if it ever seeks independence. For the time being, however, political leaders say that is not possible because of pressure from Iraq’s neighbors -- particularly Turkey -- which have Kurdish minorities, abhor the idea of an independent Kurdish state and have threatened to crush it if it emerges.

But on the streets here, it is obvious that the official position is chafing against the will of many, if not most, ordinary Kurds.

Fatah, speaking in his living room, said Kurdish leaders were aware of the frustration and doubts among their followers.

“We would like to be part of a democratic, federal and united Iraq,” he said. “But our people have presented two conditions that are absolute: full democracy and full federalism.”

Kurds could always reassess, he suggested.

“From the beginning, we have expressed our desire to make Iraq a country of two equal peoples, and we hope that Allawi’s government will succeed -- on this basis.”

Special correspondent Azad Seddiq in Sulaymaniya and Salar Jaff of The Times’ Baghdad Bureau contributed to this report.