As speculation mounts over a possible U.S.-led military operation to overthrow Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, attention has once again focused on Iraq's rebellious Kurds.
Leaders of the two main Kurdish factions administering northern Iraq have many differences. But they seem to agree on one issue: the possible U.S. effort to overthrow Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
The two leaders, Massoud Barzani, of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, and Jalal Talabani, of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, met recently in Germany with U.S. officials to discuss a possible Kurdish role in any effort to oust President Saddam.
Both of the Kurdish leaders declined to publicly comment about details of those talks. But they are clear on one point: They will not take part in any operation that they believe would endanger the security of their people and would fail to guarantee that they become equal citizens in a democratic Iraq, where the Kurds are granted federal rights.
The KDP leader, Massoud Barzani, said Kurdish officials want to protect the new freedoms of their people. Mr. Barzani said that during the past 11 years, about three million people living in northern Iraq, Kurds, Christians and Turcomens, have been enjoying unprecedented freedoms.
On the economic front, too, Iraqi Kurds have made huge strides. The Kurds' share of money from the United Nations oil-for-food program for Iraq has helped pay for new schools and hospitals.
Yonnadim Kanna, leader of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, a party that defends the interests of Iraq's small Assyrian Christian minority that faces persecution in areas under Iraqi government control, said his people are treated far better in Kurdish-run northern Iraq.
"For sure, it was a good experience and good process for 10-11 years. People away from the oppression, away from the persecution from the dictatorship regime, crimes and policies. We have our own educational and cultural rights, there is political freedom and freedom for media," he said.
The Kurds experiment in self-rule came after their failed rebellion against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, at the end of the Persian Gulf War.
Thousands of Kurds died when the U.S. led coalition failed to intervene against advancing Iraqi forces. But, an international outcry arose when televised pictures showed millions of Kurdish refugees huddled in and around the mountains bordering Iran and Turkey. The United States and its allies declared a "no fly" zone in northern Iraq to protect the Kurds, enforced by U.S. and British planes.
Many Kurds said they continue to distrust the United States. Yet, many also acknowledge the U.S. role in assuring their security.
Barham Salih, a top official from Mr. Talabani's group, the PUK, is one of them. "The Americans have been good to us over the past 10 years. They have been protecting our country from Iraqi onslaughts. We have had many misgivings about American policy. But we are fundamentally interested in our own interests here and our own interests lie in a democratic Iraq. And if tomorrow, the United States as the leader of the free world were to become committed in a fundamental way to this process, that will be a very pleasing story for us," Mr. Salih said.
Some Kurds, like English language student Abdullah Aziz, even believe that the U.S. government will support the Kurds' long-cherished dream of independence. "I'm optimistic for the Kurdish situation. I think the United States will give us our independence and God willing, we will get this independence," Mr. Aziz said.
But the United States has ruled out support for Kurdish independence for one very important reason. Turkey, a key U.S. ally, has threatened to intervene militarily in northern Iraq should the Iraqi Kurds make any move towards breaking away from Iraq.
Turkey fears that the emergence of an independent Kurdish state on its borders would re-ignite separatism among its own restive Kurdish population.
Iran also has a sizeable Kurdish minority, and also is stiffly opposed to Kurdish independence.
The PUK's Barham Salih stresses that Kurdish leaders recognize that independence is not a realistic option and that they have reassured Turkey and Iran that this is not their goal. "We continue to emphasize to them that there is no prospect for a Kurdish state and I'm being very candid about it," Mr. Salih said. "I've often told my Turkish and Iranian interlocutors we as Kurdish people have the right to self-determination, but realities are realities. We are smart enough, I hope, to realize that there is no prospect for ceding away from Iraq for dismembering Iraq, there is no viable option for a Kurdish state in Iraq. We do not see that the Turks and the Iranians will change their minds about this issue," he said.
While the Kurdish leaders say they have set aside the idea of independence, they will never give up the gains they have made during 11 years of self-rule.