Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Kurds Want Independence if Fighting Continues
As Kurdish leaders in Baghdad, led by Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, urged national unity and brokered political talks between Sunni and Shia leaders, Kurds in the northeastern city of Sulaimaniyah said their leaders should stop negotiating and go it alone if the situation does not calm in Baghdad.
Iraq's Kurdish territories, widely considered the safest area in Iraq following the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, have remained largely immune to the sectarian violence that wreaked havoc in Baghdad and other southern and central provinces, particularly in the last week.
For many in Iraqi Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region of Iraq since 1991, the violence raging elsewhere serves to reinforce their strong desire for independence.
"Sectarian sentiments are stronger than nationalist [ones] in Iraq, so the Kurds need to split [from Iraq] if a sectarian war explodes," said Azad Rostam, a 23-year-old university student, reflecting a commonly held view.
As Baghdad shut down for a three-day curfew, life remained pretty much the same in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Iraqi news stations carried virtually non-stop coverage and analysis of the crisis, but the main Kurdish station, Kurdsat, focused on issues that affect the Kurds, such as the bird flu outbreak in Sulaimaniyah that has panicked citizens here.
Kurdish leaders are currently trying to negotiate a national unity government in Baghdad, but the Kurdistan Regional Government president Masood Barzani has warned that if a civil war broke out, the Kurds would declare independence.
But one Kurdish Iraqi analyst, Behman Tahir, suggested that this was not a serious threat, rather "a pressure card" aimed at drawing together Iraqi political factions that are now battling over the new cabinet.
Although Tahir did admit that if civil war engulfed the country, it would provide the Kurds with a rare opportunity to "liberate other parts of Kurdistan that are still under Iraqi government, such as Kirkuk".
Kirkuk is one of several predominantly Kurdish cities outside of Iraqi Kurdistan that were ethnically cleansed under Saddam Hussein's regime. Many Kurds carry a deep mistrust of Arabs because of the campaigns, and are particularly frustrated with central government’s failure to address their grievances over Kirkuk.
Leaders of the two ruling parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, refused numerous requests for interviews for this story.
Commenting on how Iraqi Kurdistan should respond to the escalating violence, Muhsin Bayyz, deputy minister for Peshmarga (Kurdish forces), said that the trend was worrying and that efforts would be made to prevent the insurgency spilling across into the region.
"We don't want this conflict to ignite in Iraq, and we'll do our best to maintain the stability of our region," he said.
Bayyz said the Kurdish authorities were prepared to welcome families from other parts of Iraq who were trying to escape the troubles, as they did when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003.
While many Kurds believe the violence could hasten their independence, there are some who caution against such a move because of the strong economic ties that have emerged between Iraqi Kurdistan and Baghdad.
Halkawt Ramazan, a 34-year-old businessman, traded goods between Baghdad and Sulaimaniyah until last week when violence broke out.
"The start of a sectarian war in Iraq would not work in favour of the Kurds," he said. "We might lose all of the political and economic achievements we have gained in the last few years."
Frman Abdulrahman is an IWPR trainee journalist in Sulaimanyah.
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