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Iraq Neighbors Wait for Stability - 2004-06-14

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said recently that the departure of the U.S.-led coalition authority in Iraq could pave the way for improved relations with Syria, Turkey, and Iran. Middle East analysts say Iraq's neighbors will be watching how the new government deals with issues such as Kurdish autonomy, power-sharing, and pressure from some quarters to adopt Islamic law.

Following passage of a U.N. resolution affirming transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi government June 30, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan urged the international community to support the new Iraqi interim government, as it moves toward free elections later this year. "A great deal is riding on its success, and we should all give it whatever help we can."

Kurdish leaders in Iraq were upset that the final text of the U.N. resolution did not mention the interim constitution signed by Iraq's Governing Council, which assured Kurds minority rights and allowed for them to retain a degree of self-rule.

Prominent Kurdish leaders Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani are threatening to withdraw from Baghdad's government, unless those rights can be guaranteed.

Some Middle East analysts say the status of the Kurdish minority is key to stability in the region, and is of concern to Turkey, Iran, and Syria.

A scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, Murhaf Jouejati, explains. "Syria has its own Kurdish minority, and any talk of Kurdish autonomy in the north of Iraq makes not only Syria nervous, but all the neighbors of Iraq that have Kurdish populations as well, such as Turkey and Iran," he said. "So you see, Kurdish autonomy in the north of Iraq would, perhaps, whet the appetite of the Kurdish minority in Syria. This would revive the nationalist aspirations of the Kurdish people. This is a challenge to Syria, and, again, to Turkey and Iran. So, the fragmentation of Iraq would not be well looked upon."

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, recently spoke at the private Council on Foreign Relations in New York. He said Kurdish leaders are not trying to divide Iraq. "They have agreed to be part of this beautiful country, to be committed to its unity, to its territorial integrity, but at the same time retain some degree of self-rule. That is the name of the game."

Analysts say the question of Kurdish autonomy is not the only issue of concern to Iraq's neighbors. Even Turkey, which has a Kurdish population of about 15 million, has other concerns.

David Phillips of the Council on Foreign Relations says the Turkish leadership opposes Islamic extremism, and would not like to see a Shi'ite majority government in Iraq install a system of Islamic law.

"The establishment in Turkey is much more concerned about an Islamic republic of Iraq potentially spilling over its borders and stirring Islamist tendencies in Turkey, than they are about a secular, pro-Western federal entity, called Iraqi Kurdistan, that can actually have a positive effect in Turkey."

Syria and Iran also have an interest in stability in Iraq. Mr. Jouejati from the Middle East Institute says Washington might be able to use that as leverage with Syria, for instance, which the United States wants to tighten its border to prevent militants from crossing into Iraq.

"Syria would want very much [for] Washington to recognize that the stabilization of Iraq could only come with cooperation of the neighbors of Iraq," he said. "So, Syria, I think, could be ready and willing to cooperate with Washington on Iraqi questions of stabilization of Iraq, if only Washington would recognize Damascus, and also Tehran, as major pillars - as partners in the need to stabilize Iraq."

Mr. Phillips says Iran supports the idea of democracy in Iraq, but not necessarily for the same reasons as the United States. He notes that the majority in Iraq are Shiite Muslims, like Iranians.

"Their motivation might be a little different because they know that ultimately, if Iraq is a democracy, that the overwhelming majority of the population, estimated to be 60-percent, are Arab Shia and they will assume a primary role in the central government."

Analysts say Iraq's neighbors will be watching closely to see how issues of power-sharing are resolved.