Iraq's Kurds embrace new charter

The constitution, to be voted on tomorrow, enshrines for the first time Kurdish rights into Iraqi law.

For Kurds who are likely to vote overwhelmingly for Iraq's new constitution tomorrow, one well-plastered poster sums up the emotion.

"The new constitution," it reads over a photograph that taps deeply into every Kurdish heart, "is the end of genocide and repression."

The picture shows an elderly Kurdish woman, along with 1 million fellow Kurds, fleeing Iraq into the mountains as Saddam Hussein crushed an uprising in 1991. Kurds expected revenge, and knew how it tasted. In 1988, Iraqi forces had gassed the town of Halabja, and before that destroyed thousands of Kurdish villages.

Which is why Kurds are preparing to celebrate Saturday. For all, the new constitution is the first time Kurdish rights have ever been enshrined in Iraqi law. And for many, the new federalism is only the first step toward their dream of a future independent state.

"When people read this constitution, they are happy, because for the first time on paper, officially, are Kurdish rights," say Handren Mohammad Saleh, the election training and operations officers for Erbil Province. "People feel: Let us fix this now, and all else will follow."

Mr. Saleh was inundated with 21,000 applications for 12,000 spots to help conduct the referendum. And that enthusiasm spread across what is recognized as the Kurdistan Regional Government.

"More than 95 percent of Kurds want an independent state, and this is the first step," says Mohammad Sadik, president of the University of Salahaddin. Still, he says, the Kurdish leadership is "very wise" settling for a federal state "at this stage," and not pushing further the Shiite majority and nervous Sunni minority.

"Iraq was not created by God," says Dr. Sadik. "Iraq was put together after the Ottoman Empire, and has three distinct peoples. We don't have anything in common with the Arabs ... the only thing we have in common is religion, and the Kurds have never taken religion seriously [as a basis for nation building].

"Saddam managed to keep it together, but he was a brutal dictator, who used force and torture," adds Sadik. "Even if you try to put the three parts of Iraq together by force for the next 1,000 years, it will fall apart one day."

After the 1991 exodus and crushing of the Kurdish rebellion, American and British aircraft began protecting northern Iraq from Mr. Hussein's armies with a no-fly zone. Since then, Kurds have exercised de facto self-rule.

And while the north has long been different, the gap between Kurdish lands today and the rest of Iraq, by every measure - from confidence and investment, to the rule of law, and with a fraction of the violence - could not be more stark.

Here it is a different world, the "other Iraq," and that is how many Kurds want it to remain. In the city of Dohuk, for example, not far from the border with Turkey, large houses are being built with confidence and painted with pastel colors.

Construction cranes mark the skyline and there is a palpable hope - the kind that the architects of the Iraq invasion hoped would spread all across Iraq after US occupation - borne of the fact that people here barely face the corrosive fear of begin blown apart, that defines daily life for so many Iraqis.

And everywhere, the red, white, and green strips of the Kurdish flag, with its yellow sun in the middle. The Iraqi national flag is nowhere to be seen in these parts. A "yes" vote Saturday will even legalize the 1992 decision by the Kurdish parliament, which turned the Kurd's peshmerga militia into a formal military force.

"All of this is to prevent an excessive centralization of power in Baghdad," says Stafford Clarry, a former United Nations official who now advises the Kurdistan government.

"People are getting increasingly relaxed about the break-up of Iraq," says Mr. Clarry. "People look at [violence in] the rest of Iraq and say it only proves why the country should fall apart. If it is going to happen, let it fall apart in the right way."

Such thinking "is not coming from [the Kurdish leadership]," says Clarry. "But people argue for [independence], feel they deserve it, and that they earned it."

Indeed, more than a year before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Kurdish leaders transformed their strategy of isolation, to one that recognized that ensuring Kurdish rights required holding some political power in Baghdad.

On the eve of the referendum, that strategy appears to be paying off. Besides controlling Iraqi Kurdistan, a Kurd last year was prime minister of the interim government. And President Jalal Talabani - who announced a deal with Sunnis over the constitution Wednesday, standing before the Iraqi flag in Baghdad - is also a Kurd.

"People are very excited," says Dilshad Mustafa, managing editor of Khabet, the largest newspaper in northern Iraq. "There is a weakness in the referendum. it is not a complete decision for our self determination, but it will be complete in the future, step by step."

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