Bound to Iraq, Kurds eye options

Violence, including a truck bombing in Kirkuk last week, is making Kurds increasingly wary about being part of Iraq.

For all the framed bucolic scenes and portraits of stern patriarchs, what dominates Abdulkader Shkak's main-street office in this bustling southern capital of Kurdish Iraq are larger-than-life photos of fluffy yellow chicks.

Selling chicks - and the fans and feeders that accompany them - is what Mr. Shkak does for a living. And by all accounts, business is booming. "Before the war we sold 25,000 chicks a day, but now it's something closer to 50,000," says Shkak. "People have more money."

In Iraqi Kurdistan, the northern third of the country that was virtually independent of Saddam Hussein's rule for the past 12 years, there are no bombed-out remains of the war like those that scar Baghdad. Instead, signs of an economic uptick abound. And America, which safeguarded the Kurds' autonomy from the dictator with a no-fly zone, is widely seen more as a liberator than an occupier.

Despite the bustle and optimism, questions remain for many Kurds about their future with an Iraq that looks more chaotic and worrisome each day. The concern has deepened after last Thursday's truck bombing outside the Kirkuk offices of the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), one of two leading Kurdish political parties. The bombing, which killed five people and injured several more, is part of an upsurge in attacks on the local population that some authorities and experts see as a strategy to disrupt an accelerated transfer of authority to Iraqis.

Average Kurds here speak with hope of a constitutional process that results in a federal system guaranteeing the rights of Iraq's regions and ethnic minorities. Yet the prewar worries voiced in many world capitals that the Kurds might seek a destabilizing independence have not been fully allayed. The Americans and their allies who feared that the Kurds might seize on a war as their opening to demanding independence worry now that mounting violence - like the deadly attacks against police stations north of Baghdad that killed 14 this weekend - could push the Kurds to seek separation from the south.

A dream of independence, deferred

Next door to Shkak, at the Choman Sweets shop, sweet-toothed shoppers line up for the pastries that will conclude their evening iftar (Ramadan fast-breaking) meals, while bakers in the back room pull round trays of baklava from the ovens as fast as they are browned. "America good!" says a counter attendant to a foreign visitor, accenting the comment with a thumbs-up.

People here say they want a united Iraq to work - but hold out the option of independence if it doesn't.

"We would like to live under a democratic, federal government that will show the borders of Kurdistan," says Abdul Rahman Othman, Shkak's partner in the chicken business. "But," he adds, his tone changing, "if the future government fails to take care of the Kurdish people's rights, then we will ask to be independent."

The Kurds' political leaders employ more measured rhetoric and insist their confidence is in a strong, united, democratic Iraq. The PUK's leader, Jalal Talabani, holds the US-appointed Governing Council's rotating presidency. Massoud Barzani, head of the rival Kurdistan Democratic Party dominating northwestern Iraqi Kurdistan, is also a council member and is often mentioned as a likely candidate for president of the country. And KDP member Hoshyar Zebari serves as Iraq's foreign minister.

Political leaders here say they understand their fellow Kurds' yearnings, but they also say a federal Iraq is the best option and the outcome they must now work for. "I'm proud of my Kurdish heritage, and I understand that some of my compatriots would like to be immune from the negative influences from the south," says Barhan Selay, prime minister of the PUK-controlled provincial council of ministers in Sulaymaniyah. "But if we have a federal government in Baghdad, Kurdish Iraqis will be safe."

At a recent town-hall meeting with university students, Mr. Selay says he confronted head-on the skepticism Kurds feel. "They asked me, 'Why should we risk this?' and I tried to convince them ... Iraq can become a prosperous place [where we] improve on an identity with its failures and develop an Iraqi identity we can be proud of."

A man who slips easily from the local to the big picture, Selay says Iraq now owes it to its region and to the world to prove that a diverse Middle Eastern society can develop a federal democracy respectful of all citizens' human rights. "We need to change politics in this part of the world," he says, adding that the "blood and sweat" that a probably doomed independence drive would cost should be channeled instead into the new Iraq.

History's shadow

Still, distrust of anything like the fallen centralized government in Baghdad is understandable. Like most persecuted peoples, the Kurds have a keen sense of history, and they readily share its impact on them with strangers. They tell how 5,000 Kurdish villages were destroyed by Saddam Hussein after the Iran-Iraq war - many with chemical weapons.

Some Kurds acknowledge a fear of being overwhelmed politically by Iraq's majority Shiite population. "What worries us is the possibility the Shiites could take the majority [in a new government] and not give the Kurds their rights," says Mr. Othman. Yet as violence has spread, mixed feelings have also emerged: strength from a unified stand with other Iraqis against Saddam loyalists and foreign antioccupation fighters is balanced against the dream of Kurdish independence.

Others say a successful federal system also promises new hope for those Kurds who want to break out of the decades-old PUK-PDK rivalry and political dominance.

"With the lock the two main parties have on things here, there really is no freedom, they don't give space to the other parties," says Yassin Ibrahim Mohaldeen, who owns a photography studio. A follower of the Kurdistan Islamic Union - the region's distant third political force - Mr. Mohaldeen says a true federal system will both safeguard regional rights and open the door to needed change.

In the meantime people here are enjoying the fruits of a growing economy and the lessons learned from autonomy - an advantage that may put Iraqi Kurdistan ahead of that part of Iraq that learned to depend on a wealthy, if fickle and treacherous, central government. That perspective is reflected in the orderly traffic - so unlike Baghdad - on Sulaymaniyah's streets. The self-reliance Kurds learned from 12 years of "independence" is serving them well, but it also may be the trait that fuels dissatisfaction with the direction Iraq takes.

Though Kurdish leader Selay is the first to acknowledge what the US has done for his province - including a huge rebuilding and administrative budget through the end of the year - he says Iraq will only succeed if it creates itself.

"It's unfair for [foreign] soldiers to [do the work for us] on the streets of Fallujah and Basra," he says. "Iraqis should shoulder responsibility for own country."

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