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Iraq: Kurds Demand Vote On Independence

Kurdish activists have collected 1.7 million signatures on a petition demanding a referendum on the future status of northern Iraq's Kurdish region. Organizers want the opportunity to decide whether the region should declare independence or become a part of federal Iraq.

Prague, 26 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi Kurds have taken a step toward their goal of achieving an independent state.

Yesterday, a Kurdish popular movement delivered a petition to the Iraqi Governing Council. They group claims the petition, which demands the right to hold a referendum on the future of the Kurdish region, bears 1.7 million signatures. The group, called Referendum Movement, was established following the ouster of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein last spring.

Referendum Movement spokesman Halkaut Abdullah says the signatures were collected in a relatively short time, between 24 January and 15 February. Only Kurds aged 18 and over and living in the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq were permitted to sign the petition.

Mahmud Uthman is an independent Kurdish member of the Iraqi Governing Council. He told RFE/RL the Referendum Movement has also appealed to the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, the United Nations, and other international bodies for support. "They [informed] the coalition forces [about the petition], they gave [the signatures] to our GC [Governing Council]," he said. "And they appealed to the United Nations, to the European Union, and to other outside organizations -- even to the Arab League."

Uthman says the main aim of the Referendum Movement is to give Kurds the possibility of deciding their future for themselves -- an opportunity they have been denied since the founding of the Iraqi state. He says the group wants to get a clear picture of what the Kurdish people want -- to remain a part of Iraq, or to be an independent state.

"They have gathered those signatures and they ask for a referendum to be held in Kurdistan to ask the Kurdish people what they really want. And they think they should have this right, because since the establishment of the Iraqi state in 1921 this right has not been given to the Iraqi Kurds," Uthman said.

Uthman says the Referendum Movement is not a political party but a grassroots organization with no official ties to the main Kurdish political parties. "Officially, there is no relation to the main Kurdish political parties but obviously the main Kurdish political parties are also part of the Kurdish population," he said. "They can't go against such a demand, which is quite a fair demand. There is nothing wrong with it."

Sami Shoresh of RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq says the main force behind the Referendum Movement are not politicians but intellectuals like Asso Karim, a well-known publisher and journalist. Poet Sherko Bekes and journalist Saro Kard also took part in the petition drive. He says many Kurds support the idea of a referendum, and notes several large demonstrations were held in Al-Sulaymaniyah and Irbil last week to support the plebiscite.

Shoresh says recent terrorist attacks in Kurdistan have heightened anxiety about the region's political future. The continued refusal of neighboring Turkey and Iran to grant their own Kurdish populations autonomy have further intensified the desire among Iraqi Kurds for the right to self-determination.

Uthman says the Referendum Movement is seeking to hold the plebiscite before the future of Iraq is decided and a basic law is adopted.

The Coalition Provisional Authority has yet to comment on the Kurdish petition. The proposal, however, could complicate U.S. efforts to transfer power to an Iraqi interim government.

Yahia Said of the London School of Economics and Political Science says the demands for a referendum could seriously destabilize the country. "Obviously it won't be a positive development, especially if the referendum will lead to a demand for independence," he said. "I think it will play into the hands of forces that are trying to ignite civil strife in Iraq."

Said says normally a referendum is the best way to gauge public opinion. But, he says, it is not a process that can be used effectively or fairly in present-day Iraq. "First of all, there has to be an Iraqi government in place. Iraq is under occupation, in a transitional setup," he said. "The decision about Kurdish [independence] -- if it is about Kurdish independence -- would have, somehow, to involve the rest of Iraq -- and the rest of Iraq is incapable at this point of addressing this issue."

Said says the organizers of the referendum did not formulate in which parts of the country a referendum will be organized.
"There are tens of thousands of Kurds in Baghdad," he noted. "Will they be given an opportunity to vote? Will the Kurds, living in Kirkuk, an oil-rich town, vote? Will Kirkuk be a part of an independent Kurdistan?"

To questions like these, Said says, there are no answers.