- The Washington Times - Monday, March 15, 2004

SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq — Publicly, Kurds celebrated this week’s signing of a new Iraqi transitional law that guarantees them cultural and political rights.

But Kurdistan’s crisp, cool mountain air and cacophany of new-construction noise obscure deep anxieties about the major issues left unresolved by the law. It is a precursor to an Iraqi constitution slated to be drafted and ratified after U.S.-led occupation forces hand over the country’s authority to a transitional government on July 1.

Many of Iraq’s 4 million Kurds, who fought side by side with Americans in capturing oil-rich cities such as Khaneqin and Kirkuk, say they have paid their dues, enduring Saddam Hussein’s violence and racial policies as well as giving up martyrs in the war.

Now, they say, it’s time to collect.

“If not now, when?” asked Sara Kamal, a 28-year-old English instructor at the University of Sulaymaniyah.

“We have suffered a lot, now it’s time for us to speak and show our own voice and get our rights. We deserve more.”

Kurds have controlled this mountainous swath of northern Iraq since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf war. From the rubble of wars and neglect, they built up the Kurdistan Regional Government, a relatively prosperous, liberal and secure autonomous zone ruled by Governing Council members Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani.

In contrast to the rest of Iraq, the Kurds enthusiastically took part in the war to overthrow Saddam, who had subjected them to several ethnic-cleansing campaigns and sprayed chemical weapons on the Kurdish town of Halabja and other villages in 1988.

Voicing rare criticism of Mr. Talabani and Mr. Barzani, they said they felt their leaders had betrayed them, not winning enough for the Kurds in the Baghdad negotiations over the future of Iraq.

Specifically, Kurds want Kirkuk and Khaneqin included in a future government and the 50,000-man Peshmerga militia enshrined into law. They also are seeking control over northern Iraq’s natural resources, which include considerable oil and water reserves.

“We should have gotten more,” said Mola Bakhtiyar, a Kurdish politician.

Not all Iraqi Kurds are dissatisfied. Nechirwan Mustawfa, a journalist and adviser to Mr. Talabani, said he is overjoyed with the transitional law.

“For the first time, I feel Iraqi,” said Mr. Mustawfa, who fondly recalls his days as a Baghdad University student in the 1960s. “For 80 years, we fought in Iraq for our natural rights. Now I can relax.”

But among the young generation, Kurds generally don’t have much love lost for Arabs, don’t identify with the Iraqi nation and consider Baghdad the wellspring of 80 years of anti-Kurdish policies.

“We have different skin color,” said Aryan Dara, a student at the university.

Kurds are deeply suspicious of any future Baghdad government dominated by Arabs.

“The Arabs will simply elect another version of Saddam,” said Mahmoud Fallah, a taxi driver. “It was the government of Baghdad that wronged us in the previous decades.”

Thousands of Kurds have signed a petition calling for a referendum on the status of northern Iraq.

“We want to let the people decide whether we’re a part of Iraq or a something else, like a new state,” said Amanj Saeed, who runs a health center and collected signatures for the petition.

Their separatist tendencies long have worried Turkey, Iran and Syria, all home to large, restless Kurdish minorities. Both Ankara and Tehran have wrestled with armed Kurdish uprisings in the past several decades.

They view Iraqi Kurds’ demands for autonomy as a dangerous inspiration for their Kurds.

“What the Kurdish street doesn’t understand is that there’s a big difference between declaring and sustaining a Kurdish state,” said Fareed Asasard, director of the Kurdistan Strategic Studies Center.

“They would like an independent state. But no one would recognize or back up such a state.” Barham Salih, the prime minister of the eastern half of Kurdish Iraq, said he is taking on critics publicly in a series of televised town hall meetings. Instead of nationalism, Mr. Salih has voiced a vision of Kurdish Iraq as part of a global economic and cultural community.

His government is about to launch a wireless Internet network for local high schools. It hired a Turkish firm to build the city’s airport for commercial air traffic.

Indeed, northern Iraq is booming with so much construction activity that Kurds are thinking about importing laborers from the Arab parts of Iraq.

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