Kurds emerge as power brokers

At Iraq's polls, once persecuted Kurds won prominence in new assembly.

There was no part of Iraq more joyous than Kurdistan on Sunday. Election results confirmed the Kurds as the second most powerful, and probably most cohesive, faction in the new assembly that will shape Iraq's future.

The rise of the Kurds, who suffered under Saddam Hussein, not only makes them important power brokers in the new Iraq but is likely to add to the strains on Iraqi unity as the country's experiment in democracy rolls forward.

In the short term, their political position could secure the presidency for Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and should provide a secular counterbalance to the Shiite groups that will form the largest bloc in parliament. But as Iraq's political debate evolves, particularly over the writing of the constitution, there are also many stumbling blocks.

Senior Kurdish leaders say they're committed to remaining part of Iraq. "Independence is impractical,'' Mr. Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, who fought for independence for much of the last 20 years, told Reuters on Sunday.

But the independence yearnings of his followers, and the demands they are making for expanded territory and more of Iraq's oil revenues, could bring them into conflict with the demands of the country's now dominant Arab Shiites and minority Sunni Arabs, particularly over the flashpoint city of Kirkuk.

That was brought home by the celebrations in the cities of autonomous Kurdistan and in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk on Sunday, where Kurds poured into the streets and waved not Iraq's flag but their own, a symbol of an 80-year struggle for independence.

The Kurdish rise also emphasizes the weak position of Iraq's Sunni Arab minority, who ruled the country since its creation in the 1920s, and who mostly boycotted the election. Sunni Arab fighters have been at the heart of Iraq's raging war, and their exclusion from government means it's unlikely they'll stop fighting any time soon.

"I think most Sunnis are extremely frustrated and I think there's a lot of support among them for the insurgency,'' says Kenneth Katzman, an expert on Iraq and Iran for the Congressional Research Service in Washington. "Not only are they no longer No. 1 in Iraq, they're not even No. 2."

Mr. Katzman says the Kurdish rise, given their overt independence sentiments and desire to incorporate Kirkuk into their autonomous region, could end up opening another front in Iraq's war.

"I think it's very problematic,'' he says, adding that a Kurdish push for Kirkuk is probably "just a matter of time. And that could draw in other communities and could be a spark that sets this whole thing off."

The Kurdish position could also build an essential weakness into Iraq's interim arrangements, since it establishes a group that has traditionally been hostile to the Iraqi state as major player in shaping that state's new order.

The Kurds' 75 seats in the 275-member national assembly leaves them second only to the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), a coalition of mostly Islamist Shiite parties that won 140 seats. Since rules for forming a government require a two-thirds majority, this points to a natural alliance between the Kurds and the Shiites.

The two groups' views differ vastly on everything from Islam (the Shiites hope it will form the principal basis for Iraq's laws while the Kurds want a secular state), to the status of Kirkuk (Shiites say giving up the city is unacceptable, while the Kurds say they want it to be the capital of their homeland). But some Shiite and Kurdish politicians expect a short-term alliance to be possible.

Hamid al-Bayati, a top political adviser for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), one of the two main Shiite parties in the UIA, says a federal system that allows broad control over local laws could be the answer.

He says that any three provinces that want to form a federation could be allowed to do so, and that in practice, Shiite areas in the south that want sharia (Islamic law) would be allowed to do so while the Kurds, who currently control three provinces, would be free to hew to a more secular line.

"Some people are worried about federalism, but we think this will unite the country and not divide it." But Kirkuk, he says, is not up for discussion.

The Kurds are a sprawling and diverse ethnic group with communities in northern Iran, southern Turkey, and Syria, and are mostly defined by similarities in their languages. Kurds in all places have periodically fought central power, most frequently in Iraq and Turkey.

Iraq's Kurds were hammered by Mr. Hussein's army in the 1980s and 1990s for their independence sentiments, with villages destroyed and poison gas used against the population. That has left them with an abiding distrust of the Iraqi state and with two strong militia groups of their own that have gained in influence since the fall of Hussein.

"Look at the election - there wasn't a single Kurdish poster to be found in Baghdad,'' says Ghassan Attiya, a political scientist and secular politician. "The Kurds want nothing to do with Arabs."

One area in which the Kurds and the Shiites do have similar backgrounds is relations with Iran. This is something that could complicate the US involvement here as time goes on.

"This is a big issue. We know that many of the parties in the new government are supported by the Iranians,'' says Iyad al-Sammarai, spokesman for the Iraqi Islamic Party, a religious Sunni Arab group that boycotted the election.

Both SCIRI and the Dawa Party - the other major religious Shiite party - were sponsored by Iran in the 1980s and 1990s and thousands of the groups followers came home from exile there after the fall of Hussein.

"For SCIRI the ties are very deep. They won't necessarily take orders from Iran, but the relationship can be meaningful in many ways,'' says Katzman. "The new government may stand up for Iran in international bodies when it takes heat on nuclear issues and other matters."

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