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Kurds reluctant to give up their autonomy

IRBIL, Iraq—Last week, 105 delegates from the Kurdish parliament gathered to celebrate the 11th year of their experiment in democracy. Rival Kurdish party leaders Jalal Talibani and Masoud Barzani spoke eloquently in support of a new Iraqi federal government.

Barzani often leaned close to Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of the 101st Airborne Division and the U.S. military commander in northern Iraq to share comments and jokes. The picture was one of cooperation and unity, but away from the cameras Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party follows U.S. orders reluctantly and sometimes defies them secretly.

In Iraq, what you see isn't always what you get, and although they talk a good federalist game, the Kurds are reluctant to surrender the autonomy they fought for decades to win. If they don't give up at least some of it, however, it's difficult to see how a unified, democratic Iraq can emerge from the ashes of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship.

In interviews, key Kurdish leaders indicated that they expect to keep running a virtually independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq while still collecting a share of the nation's oil revenues.

"The Arabs will run their affairs and the Kurds theirs," said Dr. Rawach Shaways, the president of the Kurdistan National Assembly, which runs Kurdistan. He and other Kurdish leaders said the Kurds would support a federation if the United States can provide a few guarantees.

Most important, the Kurds should get a fair share of the nation's oil revenues, based on a census of the Iraqi population. A new constitution must clearly define the rights of states such as Kurdistan to govern themselves as they choose. The Kurdish state should include the areas where the majority of Kurds live.

"We will maintain only one state that includes all the Kurdish people," said Shaways. "We have our own history and culture which would not be easy to harmonize with other states." The Arabs, he said, can divide their states however they wish."

Kurdish leaders said they'd turn control of foreign affairs to a central government in Baghdad and take part in the military and police forces. They'll adhere to a federal legal system, including a policy on human rights.

"There should be rights of political parties to form publicly, the right to education and we should extend the rights of women," said Fawzi Hariri, the international relations director of the KDP.

The Kurds insist that they have been seeking a federal system for more than a decade. "We made the decision to push for a federal government 11 years ago," said Hariri.

That decision was based as much on political survival as it was on political ideals. Hariri said the Kurdish parliament thought it would be political suicide to declare Kurdistan an independent state.

"Turkey and other neighboring countries were opposed to a state of Kurdistan," said Hariri. "We didn't want to embarrass our allies, the United Kingdom and the Americans."

Kurdish support for a federal system, however, is also based on self-interest. The economic turmoil in the north and the end of the United Nations oil for food program this month have left the KDP and PUK with little money and made it harder for Kurdish leaders to position themselves for any national elections.

How much the Kurds may be willing to give up to join a new federal system will be known only after they meet with other Iraqi factions in Baghdad to hammer out a new constitution, but there are signs that they might not be as accommodating as their American allies might like.

At America's behest, Kurdish officials have dismantled many their tax collecting schemes; when U.S. eyes are elsewhere they're still collecting taxes on citizens and have even taken some land without compensation.

The airport in Irbil is a good example. Outside the bustling heart of the city in Ainkawa, a Christian enclave, the blades of U.S. helicopters bend the golden wheat low. Much of the land was taken by Saddam Hussein's regime. When the Baathists fell, the 300 or so farmers who'd owned the 2,200 acres thought they'd get it back.

Instead, U.S. Special Forces moved in. The United States said the Iraqi government owned the land and had compensated them for it as part of a $1.6 million aid package that was delivered several weeks ago.

"It's been a month and the U.S. has not paid one dinar for our land," said Buya Nabati, who heads the Ainkawa Farmers Association, which first appealed to the United States on April 27. Nabati said many of the people of Ainkawa rely on the land for wheat.

Meanwhile the Kurdish Prime Minister, Nechervan Barzani, who is KDP Barzani's nephew, said the U.S. is responsible for paying the farmers.

"We are still working through this issue," he said.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.