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Iraq: Kurdish Protests In Syria, Iran Raising Concerns

  • Valentinas Mite

Recent Kurdish riots in Syria and demonstrations in Iran are raising concerns that Kurdish minorities could follow the lead of Iraqi Kurds in pursuing greater independence and recognition. Turkey, Syria, and Iran have substantial Kurdish minorities, and their governments are keeping a wary eye on developments in Iraq. However, analysts say the three countries present very different cases.

Prague, 16 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The gains of Iraq's Kurds in their pursuit of autonomy has ignited similar hopes among Kurdish minorities in neighboring countries -- and raised concerns among regional governments.

On 12 March, violence erupted during a soccer match in El-Qamishliye, a town in the Kurdish region of Syria near the borders with Turkey and Iraq.

Reports say the riots left at least 15 people dead and nearly 150 injured. Details of the incident remain unclear. Abdul Rahman Ahmed, a member of the coordinating committee for Syrian Kurds, told RFE/RL the violence was instigated by Arab nationalists worried that the Kurdish drive for autonomy will spread from Iraq to Syria. "Developments in Iraq -- particularly on the federalism issue -- kindled rage and worry among some of the extremist circles of our Arab brothers [in Syria]," he said.

"But the basic notion of the Kurdish identity being upheld and having weight is something which, in the past -- in Syria, especially, of the two countries -- is not given any form of representation."
Friday's soccer riot quickly spread unrest throughout Syrian Kurdistan, with Kurds demonstrating for greater autonomy. Ahmed says the Kurds in Syria are heartened by the gains of their ethnic kin in Iraq, whose autonomy was extended in the country's new interim constitution.

"For sure, Syrian Kurds feel exultation and gratification regarding the progress in Iraq. [The Kurdish] people there have rid themselves of the danger of genocide, repression and denial. It is not only a nationalistic issue, but also a humanistic [one] that affects our people's historic rights to enjoy democracy, peace and stability. The concept of a united, democratic, federal Iraq is particularly important," he said.

Iraq's interim constitution leaves unresolved the future degree of autonomy for the country's Kurdish regions. But it does recognize federalism as the system of government for Iraq and accepts the current level of self-rule enjoyed by the country's Kurds.

The situation is more difficult for Kurds living under Syria's authoritarian rule. The Syrian Constitution does not acknowledge Kurds as a separate nation. At the same time, more than a quarter-million of the country's Kurds live without Syrian citizenship, after being excluded from the country's last census in 1962. Many Kurds in Syria hope pressure from the United States -- which is threatening Syria with sanctions for its alleged support of terrorist groups -- will force Damascus to soften its stance on the Kurdish issue.

The Kurdish issue, of course, extends beyond Iraq and Syria to Iran and Turkey. Analysts say the situation varies from country to country. Neil Partrick of the Economist Intelligence Unit in London says political unity is highest among the Iraqi Kurds -- which explains, in part, why they have had the greatest success in advancing their goal of autonomy. "In the Iraqi case, of course, their degree of national identity has traditionally been formally recognized in principle, even if usually compromised in practice," he said. "But the basic notion of the Kurdish identity being upheld and having weight is something which, in the past -- in Syria, especially, of the two countries -- is not given any form of representation."

Partrick says the relatively large number of Kurds in Iraq, and their assistance to the United States in the war to oust President Saddam Hussein, have left the group with considerable bargaining power -- even effective veto power over future constitutional changes.

The situation is different in Turkey, where the government -- not the Kurdish minority -- is allied with the United States. Even as Washington has voiced support for Iraqi Kurds, it has pledged to curtail the activities of armed Turkish Kurds in northern Iraq.

It's a situation, Partrick says, that leaves Turkish Kurds with little hope their own demand for autonomy will ever be met. "As far as Kurds in Turkey are concerned, they remain in the situation of obviously ongoing frustration, and their formal representatives within the system do not seem to be adequately satisfying their aspirations," he said. "So, that's obviously an ongoing and particular case. I think, though, it's a very distinct one, and the Turkish political situation, which on the one hand allows some degree of representation, of course on the other hand has been accused of human right abuses."

In Iran, Kurds have their own province and are relatively free to participate in the country's political life, traditionally by supporting reformist politicians. But their political impact was dealt a severe setback by last month's elections, when the vast majority of opposition candidates were barred from running.

Ali Reza Nourizadeh is the director of the London-based Center for Arab-Iranian Studies. He says Iranian Kurds in the past week held public gatherings celebrating Iraq's interim constitution and the autonomy of the Iraqi Kurds. Several people were reported injured and dozens arrested when Iranian authorities broke up the gatherings.

Nourizadeh says Iranian Kurds are generally proud to be a part of Iran, and are seeking greater autonomy and rights -- but not full independence. "So, they don't want to separate from us [Iran]. They never, never thought of having an independent country," he said. "They want to be part of Iran but at the same time they want their rights to be guaranteed and respected."

What unites all Kurds throughout Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria, Nourizadeh said, is the fact that they see the sign of a brighter future in the autonomy of the Iraqi Kurds.

(RFE/RL's Iraq Service contributed to this report.)