After decades of oppression, Iraqi Kurds celebrate their new power

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Tens of thousands of Kurds sang and danced in triumph across Iraqi Kurdistan in euphoric celebration of the election of the Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani as President of Iraq.

Tens of thousands of Kurds sang and danced in triumph across Iraqi Kurdistan in euphoric celebration of the election of the Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani as President of Iraq.

"I feel for the first time that we will be treated as human beings in Iraq," said Sa'adi Pira, a leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Mr Talabani's party, as he gazed over a sea of Kurdish flags at a vast rally at Altun Kupre, a small town north of Kirkuk.

The five million Iraqi Kurds, massacred, imprisoned and driven from their homes by successive Iraqi governments for almost a century, can hardly believe their own victory. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein has for the first time in Iraqi history given the Kurds real power in Baghdad as well as militarily unchallenged control of their region, the mountains and plains of northern Iraq.

All morning yesterday, cars, buses and trucks poured along the narrow road south of Arbil, the largest Kurdish city, towards Altun Kupre, on the fast-flowing Lesser Zaab river. Children hung out of car windows waving the red, white and green Kurdish flag with a golden sunburst in the middle. Others frantically waved the green flag of the PUK.

The avuncular face of Mr Talabani, 71, peered from posters plastered on the windscreens of cars, making it hard for drivers to see. Throngs of Kurds, many wearing their tunics with baggy pants and turbans, walked and danced beside the road. One man was dancing vigorously on the roof of a car despite the fact that it was traveling at 30 miles an hour.

I know the road south of Arbil well because before the war in 2003 it led through the front line dividing the Kurds from the Iraqi army. Down the road from the oil city of Kirkuk came frightened refugees forced out of their houses or simply fearful of battles to come.

Most of the villages beside the road were destroyed in the fighting long ago. It was too dangerous to till the fields and the only movement was of shepherds who braved the minefields with their flocks of sheep. The danger of mines also meant that, in spring, yellow wildflowers carpeted the uncultivated ground.

The Iraqi army, dug in on the low ridge defending the Kirkuk oilfields to the south, fled under the weight of the American bombardment. The only sign of their presence yesterday was an enormous concrete fortress, built like a medieval castle with towers and arrow slits, overlooking the fields around Altun Kupre.

The peshmerga - Kurdish soldiers - were guarding the approaches to the rally, fearful of an attack by suicide bombers. As we left Arbil we passed the old PUK headquarters where in February last year a bomber with explosives strapped to his chest killed 48 people. "I lost five relatives, including my brother and my nephew, in the explosion," said Sa'adi Pira.

The peshmerga wear Iraqi army uniforms these days and are part of the new Iraqi army which the US has been trying to create. But they still retain their old arms, a strange medley of weapons from all over the world. For the moment, however, they are the most effective force within the Iraqi army.

Kurds are careful to emphasise that they want autonomy and not a separate state. They speak of the new "federal and democratic Iraq", but out of the thousands of flags being waved yesterday only one was the official flag of Iraq.

"We have the right to independence but we do not want it now because it would create too many problems with Turkey, Iran and Syria," said Ismail. He explained that he had been living in Sweden studying English but had returned to help. "My friends say I am mad to come back here," he said in a voice implying that he was not wholly sure they were wrong.

The star attraction at the rally, his arrival greeted by roars of applause, was Kosrat Rasul, former peshmerga commander and number two to Mr Talabani. Asked by The Independent if he had expected his leader to be President of Iraq he said firmly he had never thought it would happen.

For all the euphoria, Kurds harbour an inner caution among about what has happened. For once in their history, they have been lucky. In 1975 and 1991 they believe they were betrayed by the US, which encouraged them to fight Saddam Hussein and then abandoned them.

In 2003 the US hoped to open a northern front against Saddam Hussein by basing a US army in Turkey. Ignoring the pleas of the Iraqi Kurds, Washington was prepared to see American and Turkish troops cross the border together. In the event, the Turkish parliament rejected the deal. As the US found itself in more and more trouble from insurgents after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Kurds were the only Iraqi community on which it could rely.

The danger for the Kurds now is that they may be at the peak of their influence. Of the three Iraqi communities, the Sunni Arabs have not recovered from the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The Shias, 60 per cent of the Iraqi population, want power but they are disunited and lack experienced leaders.

The two main parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party in the west and the PUK in the east, have so far remained united in facing the outside world. Within Kurdistan their divisions are as deep as ever and likely to remain so. The wounds from the civil wars they fought in the 1990s are only just below the surface. But for now the gains they have made are too great to be put in danger by a new conflict.