Prague, 4 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi Kurds are moving quickly to create a strong bargaining position for themselves as they look set to become the second largest group in the National Assembly after the Shi'a.
The parties of the Kurdish Unity List that competed in the election for the National Assembly on 30 January met in the northern city of Irbil on Thursday to insist that a Kurd becomes Iraq's next president or prime minister.
The parties chose Jalal Talabani as their candidate. Talabani is the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan -- one of the two main Kurdish factions in northern Iraq.
Ballot counting for the National Assembly is continuing, but the Kurdish Unity List is widely expected to win the largest bloc of seats in the new body after the largely Shi'a United Iraqi Alliance. Kurdish and Shi'a voters turned out in large numbers for the election, while many Sunni Arabs appear to have stayed home over security concerns and calls by some community leaders to boycott the election.
The National Assembly will have the power to choose the next Iraqi interim government and oversee the writing of the country's permanent constitution.
"The alliance with the Kurds is known, it is continuing, and it will continue." -- Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, United Iraqi Alliance
Mahmud Uthman, an independent Kurdish politician, says the Kurds' main aims in the National Assembly are to push for a federal system of government.
"The Kurds have their own aims, their aspirations," Uthman says. "Many of them were included in the Transitional Administrative Law, and we hope that those articles which are related to Kurdish demands and aspirations would go into the permanent constitution. We will try our best for that, and I think that there are a lot of Iraqis who are democrats, who are liberals, who are communists or leftists, and maybe others who also support the Kurds in that."
The Transitional Administrative Law, adopted during the U.S. civil administration of Iraq, serves as the country's temporary constitution until a permanent constitution is adopted. The transitional document stipulates that Iraq is a federation and recognizes the Kurdish administration as a regional government with power over local police forces and taxes.
The temporary constitution also stipulates that Arabic and Kurdish are Iraq's two official languages, that schools in the Kurdish area can teach in both languages, and that both languages can be used in federal institutions in the Kurdish region.
Uthman says the Kurds view Iraq's emerging multiparty system as an opportunity to increase their clout through alliances with other groupings jockeying for power in Baghdad. He says the Kurds are ready for alliances both with secular and religious parties.
"[The Kurds] have been working with these [religious parties] for years in the opposition and then in the [Iraqi] Governing Council and so on," Uthman says. "Of course, it's not so easy. We always had a problem with these people. They don't understand the national situation and the Kurdish problem as we do because they are religious [and] they have a different ideology. But still, I think they need us and we need them, and I don't think anybody alone can do [what they want] in Iraq."
The Kurds could be in a particularly strong position to make coalition deals if the United Iraqi Alliance -- endorsed by pre-eminent Shi'a cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani -- fails to win an outright majority in the assembly. The Kurds might then become the object of a bidding war for support that could pit the United Iraqi Alliance against the strongly Shi'a-supported but more secular candidate bloc led by current interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
In an early sign of courtship, the leader of the United Iraqi Alliance -- Abdul Aziz al-Hakim -- told Reuters on 1 February that his grouping is discussing a coalition with the Kurdish bloc. He said that "the alliance with the Kurds is known, it is continuing, and it will continue."
A big test for the Kurds in the months ahead will be whether they can extend the Kurdish-administered region of northern Iraq to include the mixed-population, oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
Kurdish leaders have often said they consider Kirkuk their natural capital. But they are opposed in their bid by the city's Arab residents and by its Turkic-speaking Turkomans, who are backed by Turkey.
Ankara accuses the Kurds of disregarding the rights of the Turkoman minority in areas they control and opposes any measures that would give the Kurds greater political or financial independence.
Some Turkish officials have also said Ankara is prepared to intervene militarily to prevent the Kurds from having Kirkuk as their capital.
That threat reflects strong fears in Ankara that any greater self-government for Iraq's Kurds could inspire Turkey's own Kurdish minority to seek similar rights. Ankara recently suppressed a 15-year rebellion by the Turkish-Kurd, Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) over autonomy demands.
In a bid to defuse fears that Iraqi Kurds are trying to build a strong enough state to eventually declare independence, Kurdish leaders have repeatedly stressed that they see autonomy within Iraq as their only realistic current option.
But desire for a separate state runs strong in Iraqi Kurdistan and is periodically expressed in informal referendums. A survey of Kurdish voters leaving the polling booths on 30 January collected some 2.1 million endorsements for independence.
The survey was conducted by the Kurdistan Referendum Movement and was not monitored for accuracy by any independent body.