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Iraqi Kurds Flex Political Muscle


The Kurdish political alliance in Iraq could end up with a decisive role in the formation of a new government. It is looking likely that the main Shiite coalition will win the most seats in the National Assembly, but because the choice of president and prime minister need to be approved by two-thirds of the members, the Shiites will probably need a coalition partner. That could be the Kurds, who have a different set of political ambitions.

It is too soon to say what the final Iraqi election results will be, but it appears the Kurdish alliance is on track to become the second-largest group in the interim National Assembly. Leaders of the Shiite religious slate known as the United Iraqi Alliance say they expect to win more than 50 percent of the final vote. But the Shiite coalition is unlikely to get the two-thirds majority it will take to form a government, and so the Kurds may find themselves in the position of kingmaker.

Kurdish leaders could choose to align themselves with the Shiites or with a more secular group led by interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi currently in third place. Rowsh Nuri Shawis is one of Iraq's two interim Vice Presidents and a member of the Kurdish Democratic Party, one of the two main Iraqi Kurdish political groups.

When VOA asked him about the likelihood that Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani could become the Iraqi president, he said the new Iraq will be built on what he called the reality of its multi-ethnic population. "It is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious composition," said Rowsh Nuri Shawis. "But the main component is the Arabs and the Kurds, and that is why it is very normal that the main positions in the government should be shared between both these main components."

The main task of the interim National Assembly will be writing Iraq's new constitution. Some leaders of the Shiite religious alliance say they envision a constitution that is consistent with Islamic law, or Sharia. Mr. Shawis laid out the Kurdish priorities for Iraq's constitution, which may not mesh well with what the Shiites want. "First of all, the federal issue is one of the most important issues," he said. "Second, the democratic issue - this federal state should be democratic and secular. At the same time there are specific issues which concerns the Kurdish area, for example the disputed areas, the solving of the problem of the disputed areas like Kirkuk and so on."

The Shiite leaders have downplayed the idea that they will have trouble reaching an agreement on some aspects of the constitution, particularly those regarding the extent of the Sharia influence. Mr. Shawis acknowledged that the process will be difficult, but he says it is necessary for representatives of all the Iraqi people to work together and find that consensus.

On election day, news reports from the northern Kurdish areas indicated that many Kurdish voters went to the polls with one thing on their minds - independence. The issue was not on the ballots, but it has long been the dream of many Kurds. Mr. Shawis was diplomatic in addressing the topic. "Well, the Kurdish people have voted due to the law of election," explained Rowsh Nuri Shawis. "A huge majority have voted for a new Iraq, for a federal and democratic Iraq. Nobody has voted for sovereignty or separation from Iraq. But if you ask me whether the Kurdish people has the right to decide their own future, or their own dignity, that is another thing. They have these rights just like other people in the world."

The neighboring states of Iran, Syria, and Turkey have their own large Kurdish populations. All three countries are anxious about possible Kurdish moves toward independence, or toward forming a united Kurdistan. Mr. Shawis said those fears arise because people, in his words, do not understand the real situation. "I mean, the people who have fear from the development in Iraq, they are thinking there will be the possibility of separation, and creating a Kurdish state, which is not realistic," he said. "Because the Kurdish population do not work in this direction. We are all working in direction of a democratic and federal Iraq."

The United States has strongly discouraged talk of Kurdish independence. On her first visit to Europe and the Middle East over the past week, new Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice assured Turkish leaders that America is fully committed to a unified Iraq. Mr. Shawis, like other Kurdish leaders, stresses the term federal, using it at least a dozen times in a 15-minute conversation. "Well, what we are seeking is a federal democracy," said Rowsh Nuri Shawis. "We are seeking a unified Iraq, built on a basis of federalism and democracy. And I think this means that not only the Kurdish population in Iraq, but every component of the Iraqi people will benefit from that. At the same time, its impact on other countries will be no more than democratic solutions, or no more than supporting democratic way of thinking, of dealing, of administrating. And I don't believe that should make people fearful of that."

Another key issue for the Kurds is believed to be maintaining their own unity. The Kurdistan Alliance that was on the ballots on January 30 brings together the two main factions, the Kurdish Democratic Party, which Mr. Shawis belongs to, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan led by presidential contender Jalal Talabani.

The two groups have feuded bitterly in the past, but since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq have managed to put aside their differences and forge a political alliance, albeit a sometimes tense one. Mr. Shawis thinks their ties will only get stronger. "I am optimistic," he said. "There is very wide consensus among the Kurdish population that unity and unification of the goals, the actions of both main groups in Iraqi Kurdistan is wanted and is the main guarantor of reaching the goals of the Kurdish population."

The Kurdish Democratic Party has agreed to back Mr. Talabani for the presidency in exchange for the leadership of the Kurdish region. Mr. Shawis says any Kurds who take up positions in the national government will represent the interests of the Kurdish region, but will also work toward a more united Iraq.

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