Welcome to Kurdistan (while it lasts)

<preform>Iraq's Kurds want full independence from Baghdad and all the trappings of statehood, but as Charles Glass</b></i> reports from Irbil, their political leaders know that civil war and tragedy would be the inevitable consequence &nbsp; know the only way to avoid a civil war is to embrace a a form of federalism</preform>
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The Independent Online

In a small government office on the edge of the Iraqi Kurdish capital, three oil paintings show better than words what is driving Iraq towards separation. The first is a dark circle of old men in traditional Kurdish costumes seated on the ground. The others depict two stages in the last great Kurdish tragedy. Refugees trudge a serpent's path through the mountains in one, and the same refugees sit forlornly beside open tents in the other.

In a small government office on the edge of the Iraqi Kurdish capital, three oil paintings show better than words what is driving Iraq towards separation. The first is a dark circle of old men in traditional Kurdish costumes seated on the ground. The others depict two stages in the last great Kurdish tragedy. Refugees trudge a serpent's path through the mountains in one, and the same refugees sit forlornly beside open tents in the other.

Mohammed Ihsan, who is 38 and took his doctorate in law from the University of London, tells visitors what the pictures mean. "He is teaching them to be Kurds," Ihsan says of a man smoking a cigarette in the first portrait. "He" is Mullah Moustafa Barzani, the father of modern Kurdish nationalism who died a defeated warrior in Washington in 1979.

The next two in the triptych depict the escape and arrival of 1991, when the Kurds ­ having rallied to the Americans who instigated and betrayed their revolution ­ fled over the border to Turkey and Iran. Ihsan knows about the flight of 1991. He was part of it. "It was a good thing," he says of a time when thousands of Kurds died. "It united us." The fourth and fifth panels ­ the present and future ­ have yet to be painted.

Iraqi Kurdistan today might be represented by peasants rebuilding the villages that Saddam Hussein destroyed, towns governed by Kurds rather than Arab appointees from Baghdad or Kurds picnicking under their own flag. What would the artist see in the future: an independent state, a province within a federal Iraq or another flight to the mountains? The Kurds fear chaos in the USbacked, interim-governed Arab Iraq is spreading north. Some Kurds would welcome this as the excuse to secede from Iraq and declare the Kurdish independence most want. Others, mainly in the leadership, believe secession would lead to a permanent state of war with the Arab south and, eventually, the loss of all their gains since 1991.

Dr Mohammed Ihsan is minister for human rights in the two north-western Kurdish provinces governed by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), headed by Massoud Barzani, son of the legendary Mullah Moustafa. The third Kurdish province, Suleimania, is under the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), whose leader is Jalal Talabani. Mr Barzani and Mr Talabani have agreed to unite their Kurdish administrations after the January elections, if there are elections.

Both Kurdish zones have human rights ministries, whose officials have full access to jails and prisons, promote women's and children's rights and preach civil rights in schools. Human rights have become paramount to a people whose basic right ­ that to life ­ was abused for 30 years by Baghdad with the complicity of the Kurds' American and British allies. Ministries of human rights do not figure in the Arab world or in the other two states where Kurds live in large numbers, Turkey and Iran. Whatever happens in the rest of Iraq, the Kurds are determined never to return to horrors of the past, even under fellow Kurds.

"Welcome to Kurdistan of Iraq" says the banner over the bridge from Turkey. It would be easier for the Kurds to erase "of Iraq" than to paint out Kurdistan. "Iraq means nothing to me," Dr Ihsan says. "I am not proud of Iraq." Kurds would fight and die for Kurdistan; but they would desert the army ­ as many did in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war ­ rather than die for Iraq. Even in Mosul, where they are fighting Arab insurgents, they say their goal is to protect Kurdish neighbourhoods and Erbil, which is less than an hour's drive away.

Hiro Talabani, the wife of the PUK leader Jalal, says that people cannot forget what the Arab armies of Saddam Hussein ­ and his predecessors ­ did to the Kurds. "But, believe me," she adds, "we will go through it again, if our future goes back to our Arab brothers. There is a little Saddam in the mind of every one of them."

Nowhere is the divergence between the Kurdish leadership and the populace so evident as over the issue of independence. Kurdish leaders have drawn red lines, minimum demands to guarantee their self-government within Iraq and to prove to their electorate that autonomy is almost as good as full independence.

No stable Arab government in Baghdad­ not that one is emerging ­ would accept the Kurds' conditions for remaining part of Iraq. The first Kurdish demand is for control of the oil city of Kirkuk, whose Kurdish majority was reduced or eliminated. The Arabisation programme, an Arab version of Zionist land confiscation, dispossessed Kurds and replaced them with Arab Shia settlers. All Kurds say Saddam's ethnic cleansing must be reversed, the Shia compensated and sent back to the south and Kirkuk incorporated into the Kurdish administrative area.

Another red line means reversing Saddam's provincial boundary changes that merged parts of Kurdish provinces into Arab governorates. Restoring the pre-Saddam boundaries would add as much as 25 per cent to the existing Kurdish zone above the Green Line that they have controlled since 1991. It would also give the Kurds significant mineral wealth.

Another red line has been drawn around the Iraqi armed forces: no Iraqi army may enter the Kurdish zone without the approval of the Kurdish parliament. A whole generation here ­ and the young are a majority ­ has never seen an Arab soldier or policeman. Those old enough to remember would be more adamant in preventing their return.

Some of these demands were incorporated into the Transitional Administrative Law the Kurds signed with Baghdad on 8 March this year. Kurdish autonomy is hovering perilously close to independence. The Arabs, weaker than the Kurds at present, are unlikely to accept Kurdish dictates forever.

The Arabs see the Kurds, whom they used to dismiss as illiterate mountaineers, taking too much. The Kurds themselves see their leaders giving away their freedom. Mr Barzani and Mr Talabani must be sensitive to their own people, who elected their parties in 1992. "There is public opinion here," says the KDP minister of state Falah Moustafa Bakir in Erbil. "It does not want Kurds to make concessions."

Two million of the four million Kurds living in the Kurdish regional government zone signed a petition demanding a referendum on independence. A recent opinion survey, in the independent weekly Hawaliti (Citizen), showed 44 per cent would vote against the two ruling parties, the KDP and PUK, in regional parliamentary elections.

One reason is the perception that the parties are conceding too much to Baghdad. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Kurdish official acquiescence to Baghdad's demand that nothing be done to return Kirkuk's Kurdish former residents to their homes. Thousands of these internally displaced people went back to Kirkuk, to live in shanty towns. Some are in hovels in the local football stadium, including the confines of the men's lavatories. Most of them say they cannot live much longer without running water, electricity, clinics, jobs or schools.

Kurdish leaders may be leaving the status quo in Kirkuk to make a success of federal Iraq, but it is a federal state their followers do not want. Most Kurds are uneasy about committing Kurdish peshmergas (guerrilla fighters) to the federal army and the Iraqi National Guard. The deputy commander of the PUK's peshmergas, Moustafa Sayed Kadir, told me of plans to transfer 32,000 peshmergas from the PUK and KDP to the Baghdad government. "They will serve inside and outside Kurdistan," he said.

When I suggested that large numbers of Kurdish peshmergas fighting in Arab areas would provoke Arab hostility, he agreed, "You're right. It's crazy to send 10,000 peshmergas to Arab Iraq. I don't want Arab soldiers here or peshmergas there. We have no choice. This is the tax we pay as a result of our Iraqi-ness."

The gravest danger of asking peshmergas to fight for the US in Iraq is to the estimated two million Kurds who live outside the Kurdish zone. "Arabs are starting to see the Kurds as they see the Israelis," says the law professor Nouri Talabany, who heads the Kurdish election commission. And the insurgents have accused the Kurds ­ who had Israeli help for their rebellions in the late 1960s and early 1970s ­ of working with Israeli agents in Iraq.

Mr Barzani and Mr Talabani deny the charge, saying they need no Israeli help. Extremist mullahs have called on followers to kill Kurds because of the Kurdish alliance with the Americans. Many Kurds have been killed in Baghdad, Mosul and other cities because they are Kurds. Hundreds of Kurdish and Christian families have fled the Arab areas for security within the Kurdish protectorate. This trickle is a momentary function of insecurity under the US and the Iraqi interim government, or it is the start of a massive population transfer. "We are a different nation," the KDP chief, Massoud Barzani, says. "Kurds are not Arabs. We happen to live in a place called Iraq. Federalism gives us the right to control our areas. The time is past for the centre to control Kurdistan. We are giving up many of our rights to live in a united Iraq. They are not giving up anything."

Iraq is in fact, if not in law, two countries. Kurds refer to their area as Kurdistan and the rest as "Iraq". If the insurgents win and the Americans leave, the Arabs may try to punish the Kurds for their "betrayal" of Iraq by having become America's Gurkhas.

One day, while I was with a Kurdish government minister, a call came from a minister in the Baghdad government. The Kurdish minister became angry and told him: "Your authority stops at Baquba." Baquba is a town just south of the Green Line between Kurdish and Arab Iraq.

If Baghdad tries to extend its authority north of Baquba, there will be one more war to add to the others that erupted when the US and Britain invaded. Then, the artist can complete his series in harsh shades of charcoal.


1918 British forces occupy the oil-rich Ottoman vilayet of Mosul, bringing extensive Kurd population areas under British rule

1943 Mullah Mustafa Barzani leads second uprising

1946 August British RAF bombing forces Kurdish rebels over border into Iran after second uprising

1958 14 July Monarchy overthrown in a coup. Iraq is declared a republic.Constitution recognises Kurdish "national rights" and Mullah Mustafa Barzani returns from exile

1961 KDP is dissolved by the Iraqi government after Kurdish rebellion in north.

1979 President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr is succeeded by Vice-President Saddam Hussein. Mullah Mustafa dies, his son Massoud Barzani takes over at KDP

1980 Outbreak of war between Iran and Iraq. KDP forces work closely with Iran

1988 Iran-Iraq war draws to a close, Iraqi forces launch the "Anfal Campaign" against the Kurds. Tens of thousands of Kurdish civilians and fighters are killed. Thousands more die in a poison gas attack on the town of Halabjah near the Iranian border.

1991 Iraqi forces expelled from Kuwait, Kurds rise up against Saddam but the rebellion halted as US refuses support; 1.5 millions Kurds flee but Turkey closes the border forcing hundreds of thousands to seek refuge in mountains.

1991 April Coalition forces announce a "safe haven" on the Iraqi side of the border. Aid agencies launch a massive aid operation to help the refugees