- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 27, 2005

With elections in Iraq only days away I believe it is important to inform people outside our region how the citizens of Kurdistan in Iraq see the future of their homeland. It is especially important to do this now because of rumblings in some circles that we covet Kirkuk for its oil wealth and that our true aim is complete independence. However, let me state clearly, the leadership of Iraqi Kurdistan is firmly committed to full participation in a free, federal, pluralistic and democratic Iraq.

These are not just words. These principles were declared by the Kurdistan National Assembly, which was formed in 1992 following free and fair regional elections. Kurdistan did not choose to separate from Iraq at that time. We have repeated these words with utmost sincerity to our colleagues in the interim Iraqi government, to our neighbors, to our close friends and allies of the multinational coalition and to others. We are happy to be held to our declaration because we expect to abide by it in a free, democratic and federal Iraq.

Everyone naturally desires to live in an environment of freedom and security where their families can grow and prosper. In saying this I speak not only of the Kurdish people, but of all the people who live in Kurdistan — Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Christians, Assyrians,Armenians,and Chaldeans, Shia, Sunni, Yezidis — all of whom have lived in genuine peace and with warm respect for each other since long before Iraq became an independent and sovereign country.

Kurds have learned much over the past 13 years, living and working in our developing democracy while under the protection of international security forces. We have learned to appreciate and cherish our freedom and our autonomy. Our people have begun to enjoy the progress of a secure environment and a growing economy.

During Saddam Hussein’s rule, more than 4,000 Kurdish villages were totally destroyed. Chemical weapons were used against more than 200 communities spanning from our northwest border with Turkey to our southeast border with Iran, and culminating in the infamous chemical attack on the city of Halabja.

Living in freedom since 1991, we have reconstructed more than 3,000 destroyed communities and resettled over 50,000 displaced families. We have constructed tens of thousands of homes, along with roads and water systems. We have also built hundreds of schools and health centers and added two new universities. And now, Sunday’s election is an important step toward fully achieving our goals.

The oil in Kirkuk, an area that is historically and culturally an integral part of Kurdistan, prompted the forcible displacement of Kurds, Turkmen and others. Families who were forcibly displaced have the undeniable right to return. Ironically, however, the families that were forcibly removed because of the oil wealth are not being supported due to fears about how oil proceeds might be allocated in the future.

It is important to repeat two positions that have been clearly stated by the leadership of Kurdistan in Iraq. First, those who were displaced from Kirkuk have the right to return. All families who settled in Kirkuk and do not occupy property forcibly taken from others are encouraged to remain, regardless of their ethnic and religious backgrounds. It is regrettable that what is clearly a property issue is being promoted as a conflict between people based on their ethnic heritage. Second, the oil of Kirkuk is a national asset to be shared with the people of Kurdistan. We seek guarantees that this wealth will be fairly shared for peaceful economic development.

Also, our regional security contributes to Iraq’s national security. We have developed capabilities since 1991 that have been crucial in maintaining a relatively safe and stable security environment in our region. Many of those who promote violence elsewhere in Iraq are the same criminals who, in earlier times, killed and maimed many of our citizens.

In developing our peshmerga military forces and civil security services to protect our freedom and autonomy, not only have we been able to secure our region but we have also been ready, willing and able to fight alongside U.S. and other coalition forces in order to extend freedom to our brothers and sisters throughout Iraq. We are proud of our contribution and welcome the presence of friends and forces that are helping to build a free and democratic Iraq.

The elections on Jan. 30 are the first in a series of long and difficult steps scheduled to be completed by the end of this year to reach a free, pluralistic, federal and democratic Iraq that we wholeheartedly support. Through these elections we hope to preserve and expand the gains we have sacrificed to achieve. Our long and hard-fought struggle compels us to accept no less. Following these elections, the citizens of our region will see their aspirations embodied in the principles of the Transitional Administrative Law, which we seek to be incorporated into a permanent constitution that we will proudly be obliged to uphold and defend.

We thank the American people for their sacrifice on our behalf and we thank President Bush for his steadfast leadership in support of our freedom. We are proud to be your allies.

Nechirvan Barzani is prime minister of the Kurdish Regional Government.

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