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Kurds Want Autonomy, Respect from Rest of Iraq - 2004-06-29

Kurdish leaders in Iraq say they are still seeking guarantees from the new interim government that it will uphold the right of Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq, well after the transfer of sovereignty. Tucked in a valley surrounded by mountains and sharp ridges, the city of Sulaimaniya in the largely Kurdish northeast of Iraq is a picture of tranquility and order.

To visitors from other parts of Iraq accustomed to a lack of security and near-daily violence, Sulaimaniya could be mistaken for another country.

Cars move along clean-swept boulevards, obeying traffic lights and police manning every intersection. Several Western-style cafes and fast-food restaurants line the streets, catering to crowds of young Kurdish men and unveiled Kurdish women in western style clothes, who can be seen eating and chatting late into the night.

Blaring American pop music for its young patrons, the New York Café is a popular hang-out here. The interior of the restaurant is a replica of a New York delicatessen. Pizzas and hamburgers are on the menu, as well as traditional Kurdish and Middle Eastern food.

A cashier at the café, 23-year-old Halala Mohammed, says the restaurant reflects the Kurds' affection for anything that reminds them of America.

Ms. Mohammed says the Kurdish people are grateful that the United States protected Kurdish areas for more than a decade.

After the 1991 Gulf War, American and British jets began patrolling the so-called northern no-fly zone, aimed at preventing Saddam Hussein's army from moving against the Kurds.

During his 35-year-rule, Saddam relentlessly persecuted the Kurds, attempting to wipe out the Kurdish people, language and culture. In 1988, he punished the Kurds for their support of Iran in the Iran-Iraq war by gassing more than five thousand men, women and children in the village of Halabja near the Iranian border.

But once they were safe from Saddam's regime, Kurds began rebuilding their towns and cities with funds from private aid organizations and millions of dollars from the U.N. oil-for-food program. Kurdish cities within the no-fly zone, like Sulaimaniya, Irbil, and Dohuq, are now some of the most prosperous in Iraq.

The head of the political science department at the Sulaimaniya University, Albert Issa, says few Kurds now want to give up the autonomy they have enjoyed for 12 years to rejoin a country whose political future is deeply uncertain.

"We are living since 1992 a new experience different from Iraq, starting a democracy here, and we have detached from Baghdad for 12 years," he said. "The new generation here in Kurdistan has been educated in a relatively democratic spirit and they've studied the Kurdish language, not Arabic language. We feel the risk in the future of another wave of Arab nationalism against us."

Fearing encroachment from Baghdad, Kurdish leaders have been seeking solid guarantees from the new Iraqi government that it will uphold the autonomous status of Kurdish areas, as enshrined in an interim constitution signed in March.

Earlier this month, the United States gave in to majority Shiite Muslim demands to omit references to the constitution in a U.N. Security Council resolution on Iraqi sovereignty. That action prompted the top two Kurdish political leaders to threaten to withdraw from the interim government, boycott next year's elections, and bar central government representatives from visiting Kurdish areas.

Iraq's Kurds say if their rights cannot be guaranteed, they have no choice but to pursue their dream of establishing an independent state - a move that Middle East analysts say would not likely be tolerated by neighboring countries like Turkey and Syria, which also have Kurdish populations.

It is also a move the United States opposes because of the destabilizing effect it would have on the region. For now, many Kurds say they are willing to give an Iraq without Saddam a chance to succeed, as long as the Kurdish people can have substantial autonomy.

Between bites of a hamburger at a fast-food restaurant, 22-year-old Shadman Omar says he believes the Kurdish people can be both a part of and separate from Iraq.

Mr. Omar says all Iraqi Kurds want to live under Kurdish rule but to also live in peace. He acknowledges that may be difficult to do without establishing good relations with other Iraqi ethnic groups and asking for their understanding.

Professor Issa agrees that most Kurds do not want to break away from Iraq. Instead, he says they would be content to be part of a democratic federalist state. But he warns that there are looming issues that could determine whether the Kurds stay as part of Iraq or try to secede.

"It depends on the behavior of the political parties," he added. "It depends on how we build Iraq. It depends on how the Arabs behave with the Kurds and how the Kurds behave with the Arabs. You know, every action has a reaction. If the Arabs behave in a different way or if the Kurds behave in a different way, of course, we won't have a stable Iraq."

Analysts say how Iraq's new multi-ethnic government handles the issue of Kurdish autonomy will be a critical indicator of how successful it will be in dealing with other issues and holding the country together in the coming months.