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Kurdish Parliament in N. Iraq Reconvenes - 2002-10-05

The Kurdish parliament in northern Iraq reconvened Friday for the first time in six years. Kurdish politicians in Iraq have hailed the session as a very special day for the Kurdish people.

In the words of Hoshyar Zebari, a senior Iraqi Kurdish official, the opening of the parliament signaled the burying of discord and disunity.

The legislators, based in the Kurdish-controlled city of Arbil, unanimously ratified a peace agreement signed in Washington in 1998 between the two main Kurdish groups in Iraq: Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party and Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, groups that fought a bitter war in the mid 90s. Under the U.S.-brokered agreement some 3.5 million Iraqi Kurds are entitled to their own federal state within a unified Iraq.

Reconciliation between the two main Kurdish groups could prove a major asset in any military campaign against Saddam Hussein. They have about 50,000 men under arms and control a large chunk of territory in northern Iraq. But the Kurds have made it clear that they will only participate in a military campaign if their demands for quasi statehood are met.

A draft constitution setting out the parameters of that state, and which designates Kirkuk, Iraq's main oil producing province as its capital, was due to be debated by the chamber.

At the opening session on Friday, the speaker of the parliament speaker read out a message of support from U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. Mr. Powell praised the Kurdish groups for shelving their differences and said the United States shared their vision of Iraq's future as a democratic, pluralistic and united state.

But the prospect of Kurdish independence, no matter how limited, is deeply worrying to neighboring Iran, Syria, and Turkey, countries that have large Kurdish populations of their own. But the unity of Iraq's Kurds, if it lasts, will be most alarming to the Iraqi government. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has long backed one Kurdish faction against the other in order to keep them divided and weak.