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Iraq: Kurdish Question Looms Large In Interim Constitution Negotiations (Part 2)

Iraq's new interim constitution reportedly leaves the final details of the status of the country's Kurdish areas for a future elected national assembly to decide. For now, the interim constitution grants continued autonomy to the country's Kurdish minority. Iraqi Kurdish politicians say they are happy with the result, but the status of Iraqi Kurdistan still remains the most difficult problem of Iraqi federalism.

Prague, 1 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Kurds make up some 20 percent of Iraq's population and have lived outside the control of the country's central government since 1991. They enjoy an autonomous government, their own armed forces, and other attributes of an independent state.

Though Iraq's new interim constitution -- to be signed into law on 3 March -- recognizes the continued right of the country's Kurds to autonomy, decisions on the region's final status have been postponed for the future. The main stumbling blocks that prevented a final decision from being reached include the question of the region's borders and the future of the Kurdish armed forces -- the "peshmergas."

"Turkey is extremely scared about Kurdish autonomy."
Mahmud Uthman is an independent Kurdish member of the Iraqi Governing Council. He says these problems cannot be solved in the present situation. However, he says he is optimistic and satisfied with the agreement reached last night.

"These two points -- mainly the peshmerga and the territory's borders -- [remain] because these are the security points [and cannot be solved]. You know, security totally lies with the American coalition forces. They have their own policy. They can't change it for us. That's why these things will remain. There will be more discussions about them, and in the future they will be settled. I am happy about the document, about the agreement," Uthman said.

Uthman says the Kurds retained the right to keep their militia until a final solution is reached. He says the peshmergas are "not just a militia but a force of the whole nation. They are like an army of the Kurdish people. These forces exist already for 50 years, and they cannot just be disbanded and sent home."

Uthman thinks the peshmergas might be transformed into regular Iraqi forces. Some of them could become part of a police force. Others might become border guards or national guards in the Kurdish region or join the New Iraqi Army.

The question of the region's borders is more difficult. The Kurds would like to have the oil-rich region around Kirkuk included in its autonomous region, but Turkomans and Arabs living in Kirkuk object.

Kurdish activists say they have collected 1.7 million signatures on a petition demanding a referendum on the future status of Iraqi Kurdistan. Organizers want the Kurds to be given the opportunity to decide whether the region should declare its independence or become a part of a federal Iraq.

Uthman believes the campaign greatly strengthens the Kurdish bargaining position.

"This pressure from the Kurdish street, from the Kurdish population, it is there, always it is there, including [among] the Kurdish leadership. And I think the Kurds, they have the right for self-determination, and they have the right to have a real say in what will go on in Iraq in the future. So it is within that -- that question of a referendum -- and obviously it creates a constant pressure on everybody who deals with the Kurdish question," Uthman said.

Uthman believes Iraq's Kurds should have the right to self-determination but that the best solution now is to be included in a federation in a democratic Iraq, "at least for this period of time."

Fuad Hussein is a Kurdish expert and academic who is currently working as an adviser with the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad. He says Kurdish politicians negotiated the best agreement possible under the circumstances.

"I am not calling it a victory. I am calling it a realistic solution for this period. And I think the Kurdish leaders who were there -- and they were participating heavily in the discussion -- [think the same], and I think they have reached good results," Hussein said.

Hussein believes the question of the status of the peshmerga will be less difficult to negotiate than the problem of borders. Hussein says the "main player in the border question is money" because the area is rich in oil. Hussein says Kirkuk is not the only disputed area. The border of the district around Mosul must also be settled, among others.

Ali Reza Nourizadeh is the director of the Center for Arab-Iranian studies, a private think tank in London. He says the interim constitution represents a historic victory for Iraqi Kurds.

"I think what has happened last night, they recognized the right of the Kurds for self-determination and self-governing, and also they promised that the boundaries will be decided by the elected government. Therefore, they have sort of assurances, and I think L. Paul Bremer [head of the U.S. civil administration in Iraq] also gave them that assurance, that it is not the final [solution] and that it will be studied carefully in the future," Nourizadeh said.

However, Nourizadeh says the Kurdish drive toward autonomy and self-determination may complicate the situation in the region, especially in Iraq's neighbors Turkey, Iran, and Syria, which also have large Kurdish populations.

"Turkey is extremely scared about Kurdish autonomy," Nourizadeh says, "and will use all its influence and other means to put it in check."