Pro-US Kurds eye nascent Islamic parties

Largely secular, the Kurds view Islamic groups as an alternative to entrenched parties, seen as corrupt.

The creation of a new constitution for Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region was meant to be relatively straightforward. But instead, Kurdish Islamic parties have courted controversy by calling a greater role for sharia, or Islamic law.

"The Kurds are a Muslim nation and we have to follow Islam," says Mohammed Ahmed, a member of parliament for the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU), the largest Kurdish Islamic party in the regional parliament, the Kurdistan National Assembly.

Such calls may well go unheeded by secular parties which hold 80 percent of seats in the parliament, where a cross-party committee is now drawing up a draft constitution.

However, the demands for Islamic law reflect the growing popularity of Islamic parties like the KIU and its smaller, more radical rival Komala, which was once allied with the Al-Qaeda's Kurdish offshoot Ansar Al-Islam. While unlikely to change the political power balance in Kurdistan any time soon, the Islamic parties may cultivate the ground for more radical ideas to take root.

"The KIU could become an organization that germinates radicals," says Joost Hiltermann, Middle East Project Director at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG). "People will join it and then later feel that it doesn't go far enough and then go on to join other more radical groups."

Such radicalization could pose problems for the US, which relies heavily on the Iraq's Kurds' long-standing opposition to radical Islamic groups to gather intelligence against Arab and Islamic insurgents. The US now plans to build a network of long-term military bases in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq – known as Kurdistan.

Iraq's Kurds are ethnically distinct from Iraq's Arabs, with a separate language, culture, and history. Unlike Iraq's Arabs, Kurds have traditionally seen Islam as a personal issue.

"[Kurds] are ... unlikely to respond to the calls of a fundamentalist notion of Muslim brotherhood," Sarah Keeler, a lecturer and specialist in Kurdish issues at the University of Kent in England.

Rather than advocating loyalty to Islam over nationalism, Kurdish Islamic parties are seizing the moral high ground against Kurdistan's ruling secular parties, whom they accuse of corruption and economic mismanagement.

"People know that our followers and members are not corrupt," says Mr. Ahmed, whose KIU party more than doubled its vote in last December's national election, winning five seats out of 275. Analysts largely agree, pointing out that even secular Kurds are disenchanted with the two ruling Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and are ready to give other parties a chance.

"For devout Kurds the Islamic parties are the obvious choice ... as well as for those who want an alternative to the ruling Kurdish coalition," says the ICG's Dr. Hiltermann. "I don't think this is a one-off protest vote," he says. "The KIU is being seen as a viable alternative."

Iraqi Kurdistan's secular parties admit that corruption is a problem, but point out that neither they nor the KIU can solve high unemployment or attract foreign investment as long as Iraq remains a war zone.

"It is difficult for the government to meet the demands of everyone," says Azad Jundiani, spokesman for the PUK.

"There are problems of petrol, jobs, electricity, and education that we need to solve, but we haven't got the money," says Mr. Jundiani.

But if the Kurdish parties' economic promises are not always realistic, they have a parallel strategy to build broader long-term support among Kurds. In Arbil, Iraq, the Kurdistan Islamic Union is building a large, hi-tech television studio to run a 24-hour satellite television station that they say should be operational by the end of 2006. Its programs will all have an Islamic flavor and aim to build a Kurdish Islamic identity, which the party hopes will help consolidate its recent electoral gains.

Rebwar Adoo – a young, program manager for the party's private television network – is typical of those who are attracted to the Kurdish Islamic Parties. Always politically minded and concerned about the welfare of his people, he initially worked for socialist parties and then the KDP.

"Neither party was what I was looking for," says Mr. Adoo. "But the Islamic parties seemed to be the only ones that were going straight and actually cared about the Kurdish people. So after two years of thinking about it I joined this party."

But experts say that throughout Kurdish history, ethnic identity, rather than religion, has been the main unifying force.

"Kurdish populations throughout the region have never, in past centuries or today, shared religion as a unifying force," says Ms. Keeler. "The Kurds have, generally speaking, subordinated their religious identity to first an ethnic, and now a national identity."

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