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Northern Iraq's Kurds Hope for More Influence in Iraq


With election curfews and other security restrictions lifted, life in Erbil has returned to its usual hectic pace. The streets are jammed with traffic once again, and the shops are bustling in this city of nearly 800,000 people.

But the Kurdish people, who make up about 20 percent of Iraq's population, say they want much more than what they have had in the past and are seeking two victories from the election: One is to collect enough seats in the 275-member Iraqi national assembly to grant the north wider autonomy and a stronger influence in drafting a federal constitution.

The other is to seize a political majority in the Kirkuk region, which accounts for 40 percent of Iraq's oil supply. With Saddam Hussein gone, the Kurds expect the incoming government to give them a fair share of Iraq's oil revenues.

But, that demand is unacceptable to Kirkuk's large Arab and Turkish populations, and to most Iraqis outside Kurdistan, who regard the city as theirs.

Kurds worry that an Arab-dominated government emerging from the election may dismantle guarantees in Iraq's interim constitution of a federal structure enabling them to keep an autonomous zone governed under U.S. protection since 1991.

Bitterness towards Arabs is deeply entrenched in many parts of Kurdistan, where all remember Saddam Hussein's brutal efforts to suppress them, including the devastating use of poison gas. Five thousand people died in the town of Halabja in 1988.

During Saddam's rule, many Kurds were deported from Kirkuk and replaced with Arabs in a bid to consolidate Baghdad's hold on the region, a policy Kurds now insist must be reversed.