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 Establishing the Kurdish empire: The end of a united Iraq?

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Establishing the Kurdish empire: The end of a united Iraq?  15.12.2011  
By Zanko Ahmad - Sulaimaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan

Iraqi Kurds in Sulaimaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan, March 11, 2011. Photo: Reuters
December 15, 2011

SULAIMANIYAH, Kurdistan region 'Iraq', — As the US withdrawal nears and Iraq’s regions call for more independence, the conditions seem right for the Kurdish to push for their own homeland. Is this the beginning of the end of a united Iraq?

A white Mercedes is in the process of parking in the city of Sulaimaniyah. It’s like any other vehicle seeking a spot to stop in this city, the most important in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan after the region’s capital, Erbil. But there is something special about this car. Besides numbers and the city’s name on the license plate, there is also a Kurdish flag, instead of an Iraqi one.

The owner of the car is a 23-year-old local man, Samal Nouri. Nouri says he covered the Iraqi flag on his license plate with a Kurdish one because he wanted to publicly state his support for Kurdish independence.

“All my life I’ve lived under Iraqi rule,” Samal told Niqash. “And I’ve seen nothing but war and problems. It is time for us to have our own independent state.”

The Kurdish people are one of the world's largest ethnic minorities without a state of their own. Kurds form a significant part of the population in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, mostly in adjacent parts of each of those countries. And there have often been calls for the formation of an official Kurdish nation. The closest the Kurdish actually get to this though, is in the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan, which has its own government and military even though it is still part of Iraq. An estimated 6 million live in Iraqi Kurdistan, making up 20 percent of the total population of Iraq.

Since early in 2011, discussion about an official and independent Kurdish state has grown louder and more demanding. As the various Arab Spring uprisings have had an impact around the region, and as the political map of the Arab world has evolved, there has been talk about the importance of changing the geo-political map of Iraq too. And more specifically, Iraqi Kurdistan.

Part of the reason fooir this is the fact that other Iraqi regions have also been calling for some form of independence from the central Iraqi government. The Iraqi constitution allows a state or region this option, if they can fulfil certain criteria that include gathering enough popular and political support for such a move.

Yet another reason for the increased debate around this topic is the upcoming withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. Although the Kurdish region already had some independence from the central government in Iraq under former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, this was effectively legitimised after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Hussein. And now some Kurds are expressing concern that, once the US is gone, the guarantee of relative safety that US troops provided the Kurdish would no longer exist.

The bi-weekly, independent Kurdish newspaper Hawlati (the Citizen), based in Sulaimaniyah, has been encouraging debate about the idea of an independent Kurdish nation for the last six months, publishing articles and analyses on how the current state of affairs in Iraq may be leading toward this.

A few weeks ago Hawlati’s editor-in-chief Kamal Raouf was one of a group of activists – others included academics, journalists and civil society activists – who set up a foundation that would further explore the subject of “a greater Kurdistan”, which would also take in parts of Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq. The state of Iraqi Kurdistan would be “southern Kurdistan”. And the organisation is called the Strategic Institute for Establishment of a Kurdish State in Southern Kurdistan.

The first draft of the objectives of this institute, as sighted by Niqash, was to “educate people on the right to self-determination, the national right to declare an independent state and the dissemination of international law in this regard”.

Raouf believes that Iraqi Kurdistan is facing something of a political power vacuum and this, he says “requires quickly moving toward the declaration of a Kurdish nation”.

Many have already noted that Iraqi Kurdistan has all the prerequisites to become an independent nation: international airports, its own military, its own language, history and culture as well as important natural resources such as oil and gas.

And according to the newly founded Strategic Institute, the first incarnation of a Kurdish homeland could simply include the provinces of Erbil, Sulaimaniyah and Duhok. This wouldn’t be that controversial as these provinces already make up the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan. The more controversial areas include the nearby city of Kirkuk and parts of other states like Ninawa and Diyala; who controls these areas is disputed with both the Iraqi and the Iraqi Kurdish governments laying claim to them.

The Strategic Institute’s plan suggests that it would settle for what is basically Iraqi Kurdistan at the moment on the condition that the United Nations conducts a referendum inside the disputed areas, asking the inhabitants whether they wish to remain a part of Iraq or become a part of the new Kurdish territory.

Currently it feels as though calls for the establishment of an independent Kurdish homeland are peaking. But there is one significant group in Iraqi Kurdistan that is not of this mind, among them leading Kurdish politicians. Many of these leading figures in the Kurdish region have tended to make use of any possible opportunity to stress that they are committed to being part of Iraq and that they wholeheartedly support the Iraqi constitution.

Often they’ll quote the results of a referendum held on Oct 15, 2005, as evidence of how many Kurdish actually want to remain part of Iraq. According to the referendum, which saw a high voter turnout in Iraqi Kurdistan, most Kurdish want to be part of Iraq rather than establishing their own nation.

However the average man-on-the-street may well see things somewhat differently. As Nouri, the owner of the car with the license plates that pre-empt the establishment of a Kurdish nation, put it: “what the Kurdish leaders say is nothing more than a political courtesy that’s meant to keep all the money they get from the Iraqi budget flowing”. Iraqi Kurdistan receives 17 percent of Iraq's budget.

And in fact, Fattah Zakhoyee, a former minister of culture in Iraqi Kurdistan, told Niqash that he believed that “the results of the vote on the Constitution were manipulated to serve the interests of the ruling parties”. Zakhoyee, who has publicly stated his support for an independent Kurdish nation, was dismissed from his post for not taking part in the 2005 referendum.

Even earlier Zakhoyee was actually one of the people behind a campaign that tried to measure the popular sentiment on this issue. His group set up booths in front of official polling stations during the first Iraqi election in January 2005. The question they asked then was: Do you want Kurdistan to remain within Iraq’s borders or do you opt for Kurdistan to be separate? They estimated that around 96 percent of those who answered, voted for the separation of Kurdistan.

Zakhoyee and his colleagues have declared that they will continue to press for an independent Kurdish homeland. And what makes them more optimistic is the support they are receiving from some prominent Arab Iraqis.

For example, during an October visit to Iraqi Kurdistan, Hassan Allawi, a prominent member of the opposition Iraqiya political bloc led by former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayed Allawi, held several speeches in which he expressed his support for an independent Kurdish state. Alawi and his family are long time supporters of the Kurdish – however his party distanced itself from his comments almost immediately, saying that Alawi had only been expressing personal opinions.

Raouf believes such support is still important though. The Arabs “will be our neighbours,” he says, “and we should have strong relationships with them. The state which we want to build will not be a state just for the Kurds, it will also be inhabited by people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds and will certainly include Arabs.”

For other Kurds, it seems that a more independent Kurdish homeland is only a matter of time. Last week Khalid Shwani, a Kurdish MP working in Baghdad, made just such a statement during a televised interview. “Because of its demographic composition and because of its political problems, there is no way that Iraq can remain united over the next five years,” Shwani concluded. “In fact, there is no need to demand a separation now. In this matter, time will tell.”

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