Iraqi leaders have begun debating a new constitution that will determine the shape of the government after elections in December. Strong debate is expected on the issue of forming a federal state that would shift power from the central government in Baghdad to regional governments, including Iraq's Kurdish region. VOA's Patricia Nunan recently visited Kurdish regions of Iraq.
The market in the city of Suleimaniyah is adorned with Kurdish flags. In one spot, a series of flags is suspended from the ceiling of a passageway, making the bold red, white and green stripes emblazoned with a 21-point yellow star the most striking feature around.
Elsewhere in the city, government buildings are adorned by both the Kurdish flag and Iraq's predominantly red, white and black national flag.
The flags demonstrate the mixed attitudes Kurds have toward their relationship with the rest of Iraq and the shape they hope the new government will take.
Rights groups say, during the Saddam Hussein regime, about 200,000 Kurds were killed in chemical weapons attacks and years of fighting intended to prevent the Kurds from becoming too powerful.
But Kurds spent 12 years governing themselves after the United States imposed a no-fly zone over the region after the 1991 Gulf War. Since the fall of the Hussein government in 2003, the region has been spared much of the insurgent-related violence plaguing other parts of Iraq.
One woman says, during the Saddam Hussein regime, the Kurdish region never enjoyed peace, it just received pain. She thinks, now is the perfect time for the Kurdish region to become an independent country.
An informal referendum held in tandem with the January 30 elections throughout the Kurdish region revealed that more than 98 percent of Kurds want independence from Iraq. But many, including Kurdish leaders, are resigned to the fact that may be too much too soon, and international politics have conspired to make independence not feasible.
Kurdish leaders are instead pushing for a federal government, a reversal of the system that saw highly centralized powers in Baghdad during the Saddam Hussein regime. But that regional system has given rise to fears of the so-called "Balkanization," or fracturing, of Iraq.
Deputy Prime Minister Rowsch Shaways, a Kurd, argues that sharing powers will be key to preserving Iraq's unity, and it is a formula that has worked elsewhere.
"There are examples which show that the federal solution is a very successful one in countries, which are similar to Iraq, which consist of different ethnic and religious groups,” Mr. Shaways noted. “Why not in Iraq? … And, we see that such problems were solved very, very successfully in countries like Belgium, like, say, Germany, like Switzerland, like Canada and other countries of the world. Like the [United] Arab Emirates, for example, is also a kind of a federation."
An April survey by the U.S. organization, the International Republican Institute, reveals that more than 50 percent of Iraqis identify themselves most closely with their country first. About 30 percent chose their ethnic group or tribe and 19 percent identify religion.
Those apparent faultlines are also partly why federalism causes fears about the disintegration of Iraq.
This man in the Suleimaniyah market says Kurds like federalism because they do not have any other choice. If Kurds had a chance to have their own country, they would take it, because they have already paid for it in blood.
But International Republican Institute Country Director Patrick Egan says there is support in Iraq for a decentralization of powers.
"When you talk to people about federalism generally, what you will get is a reaction to the word, and the connotations it has taken on in Iraq recently, that its sort of a euphemism for separation,” said Mr. Egan. “Well, then when you talk about more subtle questions like, where would be the most appropriate level of government to address issues like electricity, or sewers, or water supplies, then people identify that it should be a local or regional level government, and not the central government."
The parliamentary committee drafting the new constitution is trying to include more Sunni representatives in the debate.
Iraq's Sunni community, roughly 20 percent of the population, was politically powerful in the Hussein government. But because many Sunnis boycotted the January 30 election, there are few in the National Assembly.
Ammar Wajeeh, a spokesman for the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni party represented on the constitutional committee, says a federal system may work, but just for the time being.
"We are afraid that they [the Kurds] want to separate from Iraq,” he said. “We shall, will do our best to prevent this to happen [from happening]. But, for the time being, you know that the situation is a bit complicated, and they had a bad experience with the previous government. They tried to marginalize [the Kurds] and to oppress them, yes. For the time being, it may be a solution for them, but should not be permanent."
In the Suleimaniyah market, while many Kurds still speak of full independence, many also seem cautiously ready to accept the compromise that federalism represents to them.
This man says, if brotherhood develops between Arabs and Kurds, then federalism will be a good idea. If not, then it will not be.