Kurds in northern Iraq pursue an elusive goal: unity

On the eve of a possible Iraq war, Kurds confront the historic challenges of infighting and betrayal.

Sgt. Taifur Majid, 15 years a soldier, stands under a cold grey sky and watches Kurdish commandos jog past, their young faces streaked with black.

The parade is a symbol of the unrecognized independence the Kurds of northern Iraq have enjoyed since 1991.

Protected by US and British warplanes, aided by the United Nations, and largely left alone by President Saddam Hussein's government, the two Kurdish political parties that administer Iraq's three northern provinces collect revenues, maintain armies, and hold elections on their own.

Iraqi Kurdistan is the closest thing that some 25 million Kurds- spread mainly across Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey - have to a state. But the 3.8 million residents of northern Iraq inhabit a political never-never land that they say is "not in the sky and not on the ground." With war and the overthrow of Mr. Hussein in the offing, Kurds are wondering whether they will soar or crash in a new Iraq.

"God willing," says Sergeant Majid, a gaunt-faced, mustachioed man in faded fatigues and a tattered ammunition belt, "we will not lose this independence if America supports us."

But trusting America is not a simple prospect for Iraq's Kurds, whose history includes a succession of betrayals by outside powers, including the US. Neither is something else their future will ask of them: unity.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the two groups that run northern Iraq, fought a civil war in the 1990s that killed thousands. This sundering left the KDP in control of the western portion of northern Iraq, which borders Syria and Turkey; the PUK controls the eastern part, which abuts Iran.

In a new Iraq, says Fouad Baban, an activist and physician, "there should be a united Kurdistan administration and Kurdish voice, or there will be total chaos." The two parties are discussing integration, but they have a long way to go.

The military compound where Majid watches his juniors is outside Sulaymaniyah, a city of 650,000 people fringed by rumpled, taupe-colored mountains that is the capital of the PUK region. In the compound, a traffic roundabout displays portraits of four PUK martyrs. None was killed by Hussein's regime. All were killed by the KDP.

A legacy of betrayal

The Kurds can count many betrayals. The victors of World War I promised the Kurds autonomy as a prelude to independence, and then reneged. The founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Attaturk, promised to treat the Kurds "as brothers and equals," and then repressed Turkey's vast Kurdish minority.

In the early 1970s, the US and Iran backed a Kurdish rebellion as a means of pressuring Iraq. But in 1975 the US helped broker a deal between Iran and Iraq. The Iranians abandoned Kurdish fighters overnight.

In 1991, Iraqi Kurds heeded US encouragement to rebel against Hussein. When Iraqi forces stamped out the uprising, the US stood idle.

While the US today seems to support what Iraq's Kurds want - a democratic, pluralistic, and federal Iraq that would preserve Kurdish autonomy - occasionally officials here vent their anxieties. They worry in particular about the role the US will afford Turkey in an invasion of Iraq.

The Turks say they want to enter northern Iraq to defend their border and keep refugees from fleeing into Turkey. But Turkish officials may also want to roll back Kurdish self-rule because of the inspiration it offers Turkey's Kurds.

Sami Abdurrahman, deputy prime minister of the KDP zone, last month told the BBC: "There is real fear that if Turkish forces come in they will suppress our people and demolish all the achievements of the last 10 years.

"In my lifetime, twice the US government has betrayed us," the British-trained engineer added, speaking of the events of 1975 and 1991. "Now if this goes ahead," he continued, referring to a Turkish incursion, "it will be a third betrayal in one generation."

The argument used to tamp down such fears is that US and Kurdish interests are now aligned - both are against Hussein and terrorism and in favor of democracy in Iraq. "Now we trust America," says Majid, the veteran fighter at the parade ground. "Because we have a joint enemy."

During a 20-minute discussion of his confidence in America's support, Majid wavers only once. He mentions 1988, when the Iraqi regime used chemical weapons to attack at least 60 Kurdish villages and towns. Majid wants to know: "Why was America silent?"

The US declined to stop Hussein's forces from crushing the Kurds' 1991 uprising, but it responded to the ensuing torrent of Kurdish refugees into Turkey and Iran, providing humanitarian assistance and declaring a "no-fly zone" over northern Iraq. Hussein soon pulled his administrators out of the country's three northern provinces. The UN and private agencies stepped in to help.

The greatest boon of the past 12 years, says Sirwan Sdiq, a goatee-sporting entrepreneur in Sulaymaniyah, is "the freedom for us to do what we want."

The residents of Iraqi Kurdistan - mainly Kurds, but also Turkmens, Arabs, and members of Iraq's other ethnic and religious groups - no longer have to serve in Iraq's army or pretend to admire Hussein. Dozens of political parties now vie for people's support, as do scores of publications and radio and television stations.

But both politically and economically, Iraqi Kurdistan is a work in progress. "There is a margin of freedom; it is not a democracy," says Safwat Sidqi, a lawyer in Sulaymaniyah who heads the Kurdistan Human Rights Organization.

Although Kurdish officials praise democracy, in many ways they preside in an authoritarian style over their fiefdoms. "If I am for the PUK I can't say so," says a college graduate in Arbil, the center of the region run by the KDP. "Jobs are restricted to [KDP] party members and students who were in the party student union," he grumbles, insisting that his name not be used. "It's just like under Saddam."

Some Kurds say that progress depends on change. Integration in a democratic Iraq would likely improve the region's economy.

"We have run our course," says the KDP's Hoshyar Zebari, referring to the administrations maintained by his party and the PUK. "I think it's the endgame for us - that's why you see us really involved in [Iraqi] opposition politics."

A harsh civil war

"The division of the Kurdish community into two is the greatest failing" of the period of autonomy, says Baban, the doctor and activist. It is also, he adds, "the greatest risk to this community and to its future."

The civil war of 1994-1997, fought in part over the distribution of smuggling revenues, is an embarrassment to Kurdish officials. "It's a sad, black period of our life and we will never go back to it," vows Nasreen Sideek, minister of reconstruction and development for the KDP.

Despite talk of reconciliation, there is little immediate prospect of achieving administrative unity or selecting a single leader. Shalaw Askari, a minister in the PUK administration, says the two parties are 40 percent of the way toward coalescence. One half-step toward unity: In recent months the two party leaders, Masoud Barzani of the KDP and Jalal Talabani of the PUK, have begun traveling together to foreign capitals.

Internal dissension has been a constant of Kurdish history. During the civil war, Mr. Talabani relied on Iranian help until Mr. Barzani invited in Hussein's forces and sought assistance from Turkey. The war percolated until the US worked out a peace agreement in 1998.

Of the two challenges they face - the need to rely on outsiders and the imperative of unity - Kurds say the former is easier. "When you are thrown into the river and somebody is there and he puts his hand out to help you," says Mr. Askari, the PUK minister, "you must trust."

"The chance is here and I think we should take it," he adds. The American hand doesn't offer independence, which Askari says all Kurds want in their hearts, but it is perhaps the only way forward.

Regarding unity, Askari is less sanguine. His father, Ali, was ambushed and executed by the KDP in 1978. His picture is one of the four portraits at on the roundabout at the PUK military compound outside Sulaymaniyah.

Shalaw Askari pauses when he is asked how can Kurds can overcome this legacy of internecine strife. It's a sensitive subject, he says. "If you say you forget, it's not true."

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